‘Only girl standing’ has no time for quotas

A professor of chemistry at the age of 32, Brigid Heywood knows how hard it can be to forge a career in the male-dominated world of science. Even so, the forthright new vice-chancellor of the University of New England doesn’t think quotas for women academics are the answer.

“I think universities in Australia, God help me for saying it, I think many universities – are still caught up in using metrics that were developed for white, Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-centric males who have an entourage of people looking after them, who did not have to go home and look after their children,” she says, pointing to research that shows although women academics may publish less overall than men, citation indices suggest their research has a greater impact.

Heywood, now 61, knows her intelligence and enthusiasm carried her forward where other women have faltered. She was appointed a professor of chemistry on the strength of her research credentials, even though she didn’t have a chemistry degree; her degrees are in biological sciences and applied medical sciences.

“The fact that I became a professor of chemistry without holding a chemistry degree was a problem for everybody but me and clearly the people who appointed me,” she says.

Even so, Heywood firmly believes using quotas to increase the ratio of women to men is misguided and it’s far more appropriate to recognise women’s scholarly contributions in a different and more flexible way.

“I’m very aware that I was given opportunities because I was the only girl standing,” she says. “I was passionate about what I was doing, and without meaning to be arrogant, I was very good at what I was doing. But I don’t want a job if someone says I got it because I was a girl. I’d like to think that I got it because I was really good at my job, and when it came to a competitive interview, I was better in the interview than anybody else in the room.”

Appointed by UNE after a stint as deputy vice-chancellor, research, at the University of Tasmania, and before that working for a number of years in a senior role at New Zealand’s Massey University, Yorkshire-born Heywood began her steady climb up the career ladder in Britain, most recently at the Open University.

She and her husband enjoy living in New Zealand (where they still own a house) and Australia. Often visited by members of their extended family, they appreciate the beauty and wilderness of both nations.

Arriving at UNE’s main campus in the northern NSW town of Armidale last year, Heywood was soon in charge of the university’s response to the devastating bushfires that swept eastern Australia over the summer, and she is now dealing with the impact of the coronavirus crisis that has engulfed universities across the nation.

UNE is one of the more fortunate institutions. With about 23,000 external students and 4,000 campus-based students, the crisis has had a smaller overall effect. Incoming campus-based students have been transferred to online study until travel is declared officially safe and, from April, all UNE exams will be offered online – on an accelerated timeline prompted by the crisis.

With most students studying wholly or mostly on-line, UNE’s physical reality – in Armidale, with satellite campuses in Tamworth and Sydney – is of dwindling importance to five-sixths of UNE students.

“Many of them will only physically come to campus for graduation,” Heywood says.  “They’re mildly surprised when they turn up for graduation because they have no concept of what the physical campus looks like.”

UNE has been geared to off-campus learning for decades. Beginning as a college of the University of Sydney, it became an independent university in 1954 and as a rural institution helped pioneer the Australian provision of distance higher education – originally by correspondence.

As the world has digitally transformed, the university has changed with it and it now has a continuously refined digital platform. Students, though, Heywood says, only see the finalised and perfected product: “it’s not our job to use students as guinea pigs”. Her years at Britain’s Open University, which then catered for 250,000 registered online students, have given her an insight into the ever-changing advantages and difficulties of on-line learning.

Ensuring fair and honest work from on-line students is of the utmost importance, Heywood says. Intensive work has been underway at UNE to develop systems that prevent cheating by using a massive array of digital tools including text analysis, semantic mining tools and keystroke monitoring, amongst others.

“We are in constant development mode,” she says. “How do you ensure the integrity of the contribution made by student candidates into the examination, how do you ensure the identity of the student, and if you want to run the exams asynchronously, which is a fairer and better way of supporting students, then how do you ensure an exam hasn’t been ‘shared with others’ once a student has completed it,” she says. “Those are all the mechanical things that need to be resolved in the digital environment in order to ensure the integrity of the examination process.”

For the last few years, UNE has been trialling online exams, and the university’s plan to move entirely to on-line exams as early as next month (subs April) may inspire other institutions. “The classic physical examination will be only on the question exemption,” Heywood says.

UNE last week held a webinar to share knowledge with other Australian universities on how best to conduct on-line exams. “We’re willing citizens, with many universities, in looking at projects that are about strengthening the quality of online support,” she adds.

The digital provision of higher education will inevitably continue to grow, the vice-chancellor says. “It’s been a reality for many, many students for a long time already. Australia hasn’t stepped into on quite the scale that UNE does it, although you can see the transition occurring already.”

Heywood believes more work needs to be done overall to refine on-line offerings in higher education, to encompass the reality that much of the learning will be by students over 30 who are reluctant to re-learn old skills and have different responsibilities absorbing their time. “Most of our pedagogies are about teaching 17-24 year olds,” she says. “We need to work on relevant pedagogies for mature students.”

UNE is strong in education, community healthcare and medicine and a range agriculture and agri-science. Heywood, always a scientist at heart, hasn’t been able to resist giving a couple of chemistry lectures at the post-graduate level, and she recently spent a happy afternoon judging a science and engineering competition for New England’s high school students. She remembers what it is like to have a child-like curiosity about both the natural and built worlds, a passion to understand how things work and move.

Given a microscope by her father at the age of ten, she leaped into the vast, intricate and endlessly fascinating world of science with both feet, and it seems she has never quite emerged.

“You wouldn’t be allowed to do this now, but he taught me how to take the wings off insects and put them on a slide with a cover slip,” she says. “To prick my thumb and look at my blood. He did most of that to keep me quiet while he was getting on with his job. It gave me a love of the small world made big, which has stayed with me all my life.”