In this first episode of the Women Finding Success podcast series, UQ's first-ever woman Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Debbie Terry, discusses challenges she's faced, wisdom she's received and achievements she's made during a long and successful career. Her inspiring journey of success in the higher education sector is a must-listen.

About this week's guest

Professor Deborah Terry AO is Vice-Chancellor and President of The University of Queensland (UQ). She is also Chair of the Board of Universities Australia, and has previously served as Vice-Chancellor of Curtin University in Western Australia. In June 2016, Professor Terry was made an Officer in the General Division of the Order of Australia (AO) in June 2015 in recognition of her distinguished service to tertiary education. Having grown up in Perth and Canberra, Professor Terry completed her PhD in Social Psychology at the Australian National University in Canberra. From there, she commenced her career at UQ in 1990 as an internationally-recognised scholar in psychology. During her 24 years at UQ, Professor Terry worked in a number of roles before being appointed Vice-Chancellor in 2020.  

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Episode transcript

[Elena - 00:00] Welcome to the Scholarly Soup podcast, brought to you by The University of Queensland Library. In this podcast series, we’re going to meet with amazing women who found their success in academic and professional roles at The University of Queensland. They are resilient, smart, proactive, and more importantly they are now working together to make changes that could make your career progression easier. If success breeds success, then listen to their stories and learn from the best.

In this episode I’m talking with Professor Deborah Terry, the Vice-Chancellor and President of The University of Queensland. Professor Terry was made an Officer in the General Division of the Order of Australia in June 2015, in recognition of her distinguished service to education in the tertiary sector. An accomplished psychologist and successful academic administrator, she serves on various high level advisory board, committees and councils, and has previously served as Vice-Chancellor of Curtin University in Western Australia. In this interview I ask Debbie who rules the world.

Welcome Professor Debbie Terry. You know, Debbie, when I heard the announcement that Professor Debbie Terry was going to be our new Vice-Chancellor at The University of Queensland internally I was screaming. And she is a woman. And for me that was a celebration of diversity and a true recognition of leadership over gender. But I actually wanted to start with a question that is a little bit provocative. Who rules the world, Debbie?

[Deborah Terry - 01:55] Well… and Elena, delighted to be here. It is a great privilege to be in this role and very very happy to be having this conversation today. Well I guess, there’s no one person or one gender that rules the world, but as we know historically more power’s been in the hands of men than in the hands of women. And I think there has been considerable progress in terms of equalizing that power dynamic over the past 50 years, or so, and there’s always more we can do. If you look at the ranks of our political and business leaders our power structures are still male dominated in many areas. So I think it’s something we need to keep working on, because absolutely the literature, the data, are very clear. The more balance you have in terms of leadership the better outcomes you get, so the more you’ve got balanced executive table, leadership table, that you’ve both got males and females in leadership positions the better outcomes you get. And that will be across all of society, it will be in relation to economics, politics, in business, and certainly in universities as well.

[Elena - 03:15] That’s a really really good overview of that. But we also know Debbie that Professor Peter Høj was really known for his commitment to the development of a cohesive gender diversity strategy. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done here at UQ. So as the most senior leader, what role are you playing in dismantling the barriers impending women’s career progression and what are your commitments.

[Deborah Terry - 03:47] Yeah nah, and I absolutely support Peter Høj and his absolute commitment to a strong gender diversity strategy. That’s absolutely something that we need to have in place and we all need to be committed to. And there’s more work we need to do. I think it starts with just acknowledging that there are barriers still for women. We need to acknowledge those as barriers, we need to be conscious of those barriers and we need to think about ways of overcoming them. And sometimes I’m thinking in this area there is a lot of emphasis placed on where the discrepancies are, where the differences are, and that’s important but you have to go further. You have to acknowledge those barriers and you have to think about the ways in which we can effectively address them. And so that’s something I’m very committed to doing. It’s about ensuring we have the right culture right through our whole organisation. It’s ensuring we are all consciously aware of biases that may occur in our decision making. But also that we understand where those barriers are and we absolutely seek to deal with them. For instance, if we’ve got Early Career Researchers coming back after a period of Parenting Leave what do they need to ensure that their research stays on track? That’ll vary depending on whether they’re involved in laboratory research, or other research, what do they need to ensure they are able to keep attending their major conferences, their major international meetings, there national meetings, to ensure that they stay in touch with their collaborators. They’re the thing we need to understand and we need to put in place strategies to deal with those issues.

[Elena - 05:42] That’s a really good reassurance, Debbie. But I actually want to now take you back to the beginning of your career. How did your interest in psychology emerge and why did you choose out of all places to work in academia? 

[Deborah Terry - 06:00] I think I was always interested and I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it in this way, but certainly as a high school student I was always interested in human behaviour. I’m really interested in what explains human behaviour. I think all of us as humans know that theres a vast array of different ways in which humans respond to different situations, they behave in different ways, we behave in different ways, and I was always fascinated in terms of what are the factors that underpin our behaviour. So for me studying psychology was I think a bit of a no brainer. I was always very interested in it and once I started studying at ANU in psychology, it was very clear to me that was where I wanted to focus. But I was always interested in not only teaching as a PhD student, I got very involved in tutoring and teaching and I found that really enjoyed that. But I always knew that I wanted to focus in on research because actually psychology is the scientific study of human behaviour, and for me many of our unanswered questions are in psychology. And it is so exciting being able to spend, for me, a large part of my career thinking about ‘well how would I design a research study to test that hypothesis in relation to this is the way humans will behave in this particular situation.’ It was always exciting. It was always exciting to be able to design those studies, to think through being able to get one step further in my field which was really studying the way humans behave in social situations, to be able to solve just incrementally those unanswered questions. So for me, academia was always a logical place I would end up and I think I’ve, having spent all of my career essentially working in universities, universities are wonderful places and it’s been a privilege to have had the career that I’ve had.

[Elena - 08:22] Yeah, it certainly has a very special [unknown word] here doesn’t it? Debbie, the next question I have for you is a little bit personal but I think many women, irrespective of where they actually work, that could connect with what you have experienced. Could you please tell us about the time when you learned about your pregnancy and how you actually had that first conversation with your supervisor?

[Deborah Terry - 08:50] Yeah, of course. Yes, no, I think I was probably in some ways privileged. I’d grown up in a family that was very supportive of education and I spent my high school in a single-sex school, I went to boarding school, and there certainly no views that my ambitions would be curtailed as a function of being female. I was and I do count myself as having been very fortunate. And then obviously I was an undergrad at ANU, did honours, and then moved into my PhD. And my supervisor was very strong. He was a great research supervisor and certainly taught me huge amounts. And I was in my final year of my PhD and I said to him one day that I was expecting my first child. And I was quite surprised at the time because he took a while to answer then he just looked at me and he said, “You’ll never make it. It’s impossible to make it academia if you essentially have family responsibilities.” So I was quite shocked because, as I say I had wonderful experiences in terms of nobody saying what I wanted to do wouldn’t be possible. But I guess he gave me a bit of a challenge and it always stayed in my mind. He stays in my mind as a very strong research supervisor and maybe in a way he was doing me a favour because I’ve always thought I would be able to make it. But also I think it left me with a strong commitment, ensuring that my students and my early, my younger collaborators would also make it.

[Elena - 10:53] And that’s why you actually mention that commitment. For early career researchers, what they actually need when they come back from their Parent Leave. So it’s fantastic coming from your experience in a sense. You understand how it feels.  Thank you so much. Debbie, do you actually believe in the ‘glass ceiling’ in research? If we say for example look at the Nobel Prize winners, only three percent of women have ever been awarded for a Nobel Prize. So you do think there are still a lot of barriers to success in the academic world for women?

[Deborah Terry - 11:28] I think there obviously still some barriers and we need to keep addressing those. I think it is, if we take the example of Nobel Prizes or other major awards in research, we are seeing things change, we are seeing more of our professors are female, we are seeing more females being awarded major research fellowships and major awards, but we also know there are significant barriers and a lot of it comes back to career breaks, being able to maintain very cutting edge research programs when you have tie off for parenting responsibilities, and big, big research answering the big questions is international, it’s global research. So it’s been able to stay connected with global communities, to be part of large global studies, being able to not lose that momentum. I think there is much better understanding and I think we will see in the next years to come there will be more female, not only Nobel Prize winners, but winner of other prizes. But the focus needs to remain on funding agencies to ensure that any judgments about capability relative to opportunities, we as universities need to provide as much support as we can across those periods where leave may need to be taken. If all of us are conscious about it, all of us are proactive, then I think we will see changes.

[Elena - 13:32] That’s fantastic. That’s really nice to hear. I actually want to now ask you Debbie about the time when someone senior told you, you will soon learn it is more rewarding to be in a position of leadership where you can help others to develop. Who was it?

[Deborah Terry - 13:52] Well it was actually an emeritus professor from hear at The University of Queensland, Professor David Siddle, who of course is well known to many having been a former Deputy Vice Chancellor of Research. He was also Head of the School of Psychology when I began my career at The University of Queensland many years ago. A very strong Head of School, a fantastic Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research, and I was privileged to certainly count him as one of my mentors. 

[Elena - 14:24] So was it a moment when your career was taking a turn?

[Deborah Terry - 14:30] Yes, I was deciding whether I would put my hat in the ring for Heads of School’s roles in psychology, obviously my discipline, and I can remember having a discussion with him as to how would I be able to, expressing the view that it would difficult for me, to move out of my quite hands-on research role and also my role working, supervising Honours and PhD students, so my role in the classroom. And his advice was very clear that in a sense when you move into positions of leadership in academia and universities you’re not moving away from the importance of those contributions but you are then in a position where you help others set up the environment for others to be successful. And he was absolutely right, and in many ways and in all ways it is actually more rewarding to be able to at least play some role in setting up the environment here at UQ for early career researchers, early careers academics, other staff to be successful and to have the opportunities that I had.

[Elena - 15:54] So it is very important to have a good mentor in your life, isn’t it? Did you have other strong mentors that really changed you perception, possibly of the system or your understanding of how to progress?

[Deborah Terry - 16:10] I think it’s always important to have those people you can talk to about possible plans you may have for your career, but also I think it’s important to have the people you can have those conversations, direct honest conversations with as to the kinds of things you need to focus on, if you are to be able to make the next step, to be able to give you frank advice, but also to help direct you in terms of the kinds of opportunities you should be seeking to avail yourself of. I mean often when you are dealing with women and leadership, mentorships really important but sponsorships really important, and I think when many studies of differences between males and females in relation to their leadership journeys are women often don’t receive as much sponsorship as males do. You know, having their name put forward for being involved in committees or other opportunities where they get to get some of that experience that will help them in terms of their next steps. So I’m very conscious of that now obviously that I’m often in a mentoring role that it is also about putting people’s names forward, being able to suggest names, people will often ask me ‘who would be appropriate for this committee or this role’, and that you’re able to engage not only in the mentoring which are those very important one-on-one discussions, but also some of that sponsorship.

[Elena - 18:10] Debbie, how would you describe you own leadership and has it actually changed. Has it evolved as you were progressing in your career?

[Deborah Terry - 18:19] I think it has. I think with my own leadership I do, you know, I’m consultative and I do, I’m very committed to being as open I can, obviously with staff, with colleagues. But at the same time understanding, obviously, the importance of being able to articulate very clearly challenges and the way forward, all things considered. I think for me, talking outside of my own experience, I think the best leaders are very clearly led and grounded by values. And that’s something I think is critically important, that if you’re very clear in what your own values are and very aligned with values of the institution or the area that you have the privilege to lead, then I think that’s a very good way of underpinning very strong leadership.

[Elena - 19:32] Yeah so setting this expectation isn’t it? Was there anything that was particularly challenging in your leadership experience? 

[Deborah Terry - 19:42] I think as leaders and I think all of our large organisations, our university, there are many leaders in our community. I think all of us face challenging experiences. Some of those challenging experiences are often around to make difficult decisions and they may be difficult decisions at an individual level. They may be difficult decisions in terms of direction, in shaping perhaps decisions that an institution might make. I always am grounded by, ultimately it’s about being able to ask yourself the question what ought one to do in this circumstance. And I think Simon Longstaff describes it very well as that kind of moral courage, and for me that’s when you are faced with difficult decisions, challenging situations, it’s always being able to say to yourself what ought I to do now. What morally is the right decision? And I think that’s a useful guide because often what you find is that it’s very clear what you ought to do, and once that becomes clear, yes it’s still very challenging. You just need to work through the details.

[Elena - 21:21] Very stressful role you’re in. Okay. Well, talking about leadership I actually wanted to read from my notes. In March 2017, a report was launched by Women Count looking at the university sector in Australia. The data revealed that only one in four Vice-Chancellors and one in six Chancellors are women. Further the report was celebrating that over half of universities have gender balanced boards with 41% of governing members being women, however 85% of Chancellors that chair these bodies are men. And only 25% of Vice-Chancellors, those in the most critical and visible CEO leadership positions, are women. Obviously the report is based on data from 2016, but I was wondering if there was any change? Have you seen any change? And do you sometimes find it challenging the high-level meeting to be, you know, to stand up, to speak up. How do you deal with that pressure?

[Deborah Terry – 22:35] Yeah, I think that… I mean things are changing. I thing if you look at Queensland for instance, all three Vice-Chancellors of our Brisbane based universities are currently female, which is great. And then we’ve obviously got other female leaders at the University of the Sunshine Coast, James Cook University, other universities, Southern Queensland, so certainly across our sector there are I think an increasing number of women being appointed to Vice-Chancellor roles. Obviously it’s a relatively small pool, you know, 39 universities you will get fluctuation in percentages over time. But overall I think if you were to look at the trend things are certainly improving. And I think universities, and indeed state governments which are responsible for appointments to governing boards at universities, are very conscious of having a gender balance. So you are seeing the gender make up of university senates and university councils, I think that is changing. As I say, I think there is a strong focus on that from state governments. So progress is certainly being made.

[Elena – 24:09] That’s fantastic. And Debbie, do you think actually your degree in psychology helps you navigate that very complex gender imbalanced, high-leadership environment?

[Deborah Terry – 24:19] I think certainly a bit of background in psychology is certainly helpful, I think. You’ve certainly got at a high level a pretty good understanding of the ways, the factors that influence human behaviour, and so I certainly think it’s been helpful along my leadership journey.

[Elena – 24:50] And what do you enjoy most in your current role?

[Deborah Terry – 24:53] I think it’s a huge privilege, and I think universities are amazing places. They do amazing things and it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been at one university, you just discover there’ll be particular work that’s being undertaken with students or in research or enrichening our communities at all levels of our institution. So I think probably what I enjoy most is that exposure. I mean, you know, universities are absolutely a core part of strong civic societies. So to be in a leadership position of institutions of such importance is a huge privilege and to have some small impact one would hope on the profile, reputation, direction of one of those institutions is something, as I say, is a huge privilege and a huge honour.

[Elena – 26:00] Debbie, how can you balance your work, your work-life balance, how can you achieve that? I wanted to ask as well, what is the most interesting or enjoyable thing you enjoy to do outside of your role?

[Deborah Terry – 26:15] Well, my husband certainly keeps me very grounded which is very good, and certainly my adult children. But I think outside of the role, I enjoy spending time with friends and family, and getting out on the bike, walking, are things I really enjoy. Not hugely skilled but enjoy it. And probably in my spare time I’m a great reader and I’ve always been someone who really enjoys reading, so that’s something that if ever I’ve got a spare moment I’ll often go pick up a novel.

[Elena – 26:58] Debbie, if you were able to travel back in time what advice would you give your 20 year old self?

[Deborah Terry – 27:06] Yeah, I think it’s a good question. Often when I am talking to early career staff I’ll often encourage them to step out of their comfort zone, obviously to seek new opportunities and to seek new collaborations. And I think at many points in my career I thought, ‘my goodness, I can’t do that’ or ‘I’m not ready for that’, or ‘I don’t know everything about it’. I think being able to do that really does help you grow as a person, it means that you’re able to develop the kinds of skills and understanding that really help you as you go into broader leadership roles. So that would be certainly something that I would be encouraging my younger self to have done even more. And I think it is important to surround yourself with people who have complementary strengths and complementary perspectives and not to be, I guess afraid of doing that or of not being fully in control of a particular situation or not being entirely confident that you know everything about something, because I think that is the way, absolutely, to develop. But I think as leaders, it doesn’t matter what level you are, you do have to avoid the trap of arrogance and I think humility is critically important at whatever stage you are. But probably to my younger self I would have said remember to be compassionate, not only to others but also to yourself. I think often younger women are often very hard on themselves, they’re perhaps driven to be perfect in every aspect of their lives. And I think, give yourself a bit of latitude. You’re managing a lot during those busy years as you develop your career and manage other responsibilities. So I think be kind to yourself and realise that you are probably doing a very good job and everybody else is managing with some of the same stresses as you are.

[Elena – 29:56] Thank you so much, Debbie. It was amazing to hear your perspective, understand what drives you in this role, so thank you.

[Deborah Terry – 30:08] Well thank you very much, thank you. It’s been great to have the conversation with you, so thanks Elena.

[Elena – 30:16] That’s it for this episode of Women Finding Success. The podcast series was initiated by the SAGE Athena SWAN team at The University of Queensland. Thanks to Workplace Diversity and Inclusion team and Gender Steering Committee for their support and coordination. This series is produced by Dr Elena Danilova, with technical production by John Anderson. If you enjoyed this podcast, please like, subscribe or write a review on the platform you get your podcast from. Thank you for listening.


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