Women Finding Success podcast: Episode 5 – Professor Janeen Baxter

In this episode of the Women Finding Success podcast, Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Children and Families over the Life Course Professor Janeen Baxter discusses how social disadvantages affect people’s life course, gender inequalities in career progression and family dynamics, as well as her own career journey and achievements.

About this week's guest

Professor Janeen BaxterProfessor Janeen Baxter is a leading researcher in the social sciences with long-standing research interests in gender inequality, family dynamics and life course pathways. She is Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Children and Families over the Life Course, a multidisciplinary, collaborative research centre aimed at understanding and mitigating social disadvantage. Janeen is an elected Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, a former member and Chair of the Social, Behavioural and Economic Sciences panel for the ARC College of Experts and a current member of Council for the Committee for Economic Development in Australia. Her research has significant policy ramifications and she has led the development of collaborative partnerships with several key government departments and community organisations. Janeen has a strong track record of supervision, mentoring and capacity building and is committed to principles of equity and inclusion.

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Episode transcript

[Dr Elena Danilova - 00:04] 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're now working together to implement systemic changes that could make your career progression that little bit easier. If success breeds success, then listen to their stories and learn from the best. In this episode, I spoke with Professor Janeen Baxter, who is the director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence. Her research interests are in social disadvantage, gender inequality, family dynamics, life course and longitudinal studies. Janeen is supervising the research of numerous high degree students and research fellows. She has many publications in her list that sounds so interesting; subjects such as marriage, unpaid domestic work, relationships, dissolution. Very successful in her own career, Janeen tells me careers are never linear, there are ups and downs. So what keeps her on the path towards her goals? Professor Janeen Baxter, good morning and welcome. Janeen, you are the director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Children and Families over the Life Course. Can you tell us a bit more about the centre and perhaps highlight the top three problems the centre is trying to resolve for the benefit of the society?

[Professor Janeen Baxter - 01:49] Yes, the centre is a multidisciplinary research centre, funded by the ARC and a number of partner organisations. We're administered out of the University of Queensland Institute for Social Science Research where I'm based. And we're partnered with University of Melbourne, Sydney, and Western Australia and a number of government and NGO partners. So we're a big national centre. And we're primarily focused on trying to understand how social disadvantage, broadly defined not just in terms of poverty and economic disadvantage, but also health, social isolation, other forms of disadvantage. We're interested in how social disadvantage develops and accrues over the life course. So what are the critical milestones where disadvantage might worsen? Or conversely, where you might intervene and shift people out of disadvantage? And how does it accrue from parents to children? So what is it about family background and where you're born and who your parents are, that means that you're much more likely to take a particular pathway. So it's quite a broad centre, where in Australia, we're a very lucky country, we're wealthy country, we're developed, we have stable political system, economic system, and yet the gap between the rich and the poor is getting wider, even in Australia. And so that's really puzzling, you know, why resources, economic resources and wellbeing not being shared equally? So that's one of the questions that we're focused on. A second question is looking at the group of people who are deeply and persistently disadvantage. So people who are disadvantaged for long periods of time many years, and don't have the opportunity to move out of disadvantage. So what can we do to help those people? And then yeah, we're trying to develop interventions, both for individuals, but also for communities and looking at policies that might influence institutions like the labour market, education systems, what can we do to develop new ways of managing that might help shift people and communities out of social disadvantage? So it's a it's a big question. We're multidisciplinary. So I'm a sociologist, but I'm working with economists, psychologists, public health, statisticians. So we're coming together and we all are very keen to look at these questions through a life course angle, which means starting at the very early part of the life and looking at how disadvantage accrues as people move through their life course.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 04:47] That's very, very interesting. Sounds really exciting. Janeen, are you also looking at gender? How is Australia going with that?

[Professor Janeen Baxter - 04:57] Yes, that's a very... I'm very interested in that, and that's an area that I've worked on for many years. In fact, I did my PhD looking at unpaid work in the household and how men and women divided housework and care work, and then the implications of that for women's access to education and employment. So it comes into the centre little bit, certainly some of the work that I'm doing, and others is looking at family dynamics and patterns around gender. But it's an area that I'd like to do more research on. And Australia's not doing very well surprisingly. The latest Global Economic Forum report shows that Australia is slipping well behind. So we were ranked 15th in the world in 2006. And we've now dropped to 44th in the world in 2020. So that's a depressing statistic. And I think it needs to be unpacked a bit further, that's a, that's a global overall statistic that brings together education, numbers of women in Parliament, access to employment earnings, and so on. So there'll be variations, depending on what measure you look at. But overall, Australia's doing poorly. And I think we do need to be looking at why is that happening? Is it something about Australia or other countries pulling ahead of us? You know, what's going on there?

[Dr Elena Danilova - 06:29] Wow, I didn't expect that answer, frankly speaking. In some of your words, Janeen, or your works, you actually talk about gender agenda. What is it? And what is the effect of the so called stalled revolution? So I think it's coming from your work as well.

[Professor Janeen Baxter - 06:46] Yes, so. So the way we've tackled gender inequality in Australia, and this may speak to that fall in our, in our ranking, is that we have removed some of the legal barriers, we've encouraged women into education and employment. And in fact, more women enter higher education and complete higher education than men overall, although they go into very different areas. Certainly more women are entering paid employment. So we've, we've removed some of those legal barriers, but we haven't really focused on other aspects of people's lives, men and women. So women are encouraged to to go into higher education, they're encouraged into employment. But when it comes to work in the household and care work, the kinds of higher education that women go into, the kinds of degrees they do, the kinds of work that women are channeled into, there are very clear gender pathways that women pursue compared to men. And so we've kind of, one way to think about it is that we've encouraged women to follow a male life course path. But we haven't really made it possible for them to do that, because women are still expected to be the primary carers for young children. They have a very interrupted employment history, when they have children they tend to move out of employment to take on the main caring role, they often come back part-time, and so they never really have the opportunity to follow that pathway in the same way that men do. And so it's not surprising that women at the end of their careers often end up with much less superannuation. They're the fastest growing group of homeless people in Australia. So there's lots of indicators that, yes, women are being encouraged and supported. And that's very good. But there's big parts of society that we haven't tackled. And I think we need to take that more systemic approach. And look at not just opening up certain pathways and letting women you know, try to succeed, but to really kind of challenge some of these institutions, particularly around families and education and labour markets.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 09:08] That possibly is the light at the end of the tunnel, isn't it?

[Professor Janeen Baxter - 09:13] It's a big task. And so a lot of a lot of commentators refer to what's going on as a stalled revolution. And so we have made a lot of progress. And I wouldn't want to downplay that, it's very, very important to remove those legal barriers. But it only takes us so far. And we need to look at what else needs to happen, particularly around care work. And that division of labour within households. And we need to open that up not just so that women can move away from, you know, being responsible for all of that work, but to enable men to share in that works, I'm sure a lot of men would like to, but we have a culture where it's very, very difficult for men to, to work part-time or to to take time out to care for young children home. So we need to, we need to challenge some of those barriers.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 10:04] That's very interesting. So, um, do you see any positive changes for women in the academic world?

[Professor Janeen Baxter - 10:11] Well, absolutely. I mean, certainly compared to when I was an undergraduate, there's a lot more women coming to university. And when you look at this statistics across the higher education sector, 55-56% of undergraduates and postgraduates are women. So there's certainly a lot more opportunity, but they tend to be concentrated in particular areas. So we haven't opened up for example, IT is still very male dominated. Engineering is still a very male dominated degree, architecture. So women have moved into education, health sciences, humanities, social science. So there's been a lot of progress. But there are still, still challenges out there. And so we need to be looking at, you know, what we can do to open up some of those areas and encourage women into those areas so that they have full access to all of the opportunities that higher education can bring.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 11:12] Janeen, your academic record is really impressive. You have published over 300 works. And you are an elected fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, and a former member of its Executive Committee. You're currently serving on several government advisory committees and research advisory boards. And this is just a few things to mention. Are you coming from an academic family? Can you tell us a little bit about your journey?

[Professor Janeen Baxter - 11:39] No, I'm the first in my family to go to university. I was brought up on a farm in, not really remote but what's called outer regional Australia. My first school was a little, I think, one teacher, two room school in New South Wales, from kindergarten through to grade six, there was I think, about 12 students, so probably about three in my class. And then I moved to a bigger school in a bigger town of about 1000 people. The school had about 100 students from kindergarten right through to year 12. So no, I'm not coming from an academic background. And when I compare the opportunities that I had, through my schooling, compared to what my own children have had here in Brisbane, they're just miles apart. But I was certainly encouraged by my parents to pursue my dreams, and certainly encouraged to move out of that rural area if I wanted to go on to university, which I did. But I didn't have very many role models. And certainly when I went to university, which was the ANU in Canberra for my undergraduate degree, I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do or where I was going. I just knew that this seemed like a good idea and would help me move out of that rural area and see what was out there in the big wide world. And I haven't looked back.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 13:10] Yeah, so nobody really influenced that decision. It was your own decision. You just thought it was a good idea. And you, you went full on.

[Professor Janeen Baxter - 13:20] Well, I did love school. And I love studying. I remember in about, I think it was grade nine we had some career counselors come from outside of the town, they came from one of the bigger regional towns. And they came and talked to us about, you know, job opportunities and career opportunities. And I remember, and I'll never forget this, my conversation was about opportunities for women to move into retail, and perhaps nursing, and one of my older sisters was a nurse. And I just remember that conversation thinking, 'wow, I would hate that. That's absolutely not what I want to do'.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 14:04] [LAUGHS] They didn't offer you a professorship, no? At that point?

[Professor Janeen Baxter - 14:07] And I didn't know what I wanted to do. I just knew that wasn't it. And, and as I said, certainly my parents encouraged me to get out and see what was out there. And so I went to university and didn't have a clue what I was going to do, but you know, found my way. And really, it really opened my eyes to other possibilities that I had no idea about.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 14:28] Would you agree though, that mentorship is particularly important for career progression? And how can someone find a mentor without being too imposing or stickier

[Professor Janeen Baxter - 14:41] It is very important though, and that's one of the things that we do offer in the Life Course Centre is a formal mentoring program where we match across disciplines, young researchers with more senior researchers for, you know, informal conversations about career pathways and just looking out for opportunities and guiding people. So that's very important. I, I've had some very good mentors. Interestingly, some of the best mentoring advice I've had hasn't been from formal mentors, but they've just been from women and men who I've come in to in passing, who have made suggestions that I hadn't thought about. And I've realized that that's a good thing to think about. I will think about that, yes. So often, mentoring comes in surprising ways, and not necessarily from formal programs. So I think reaching out to senior people, or people that you admire and look up to, for those conversations. And yeah, just getting advice about, you know, what could be a next step for me? Or, you know, what did you do in this situation? Those things can be very helpful. So yes, I think it's incredibly important. And I think, mentoring at all stages of your career, not just when you're a junior researcher. But when you get to that mid-career point where you've already completed a PhD, you may have may have completed other milestones, but where do you really want to go next? So there are a number of places along the career journey, that I think it's very important to reach out both formal and informal ways to get support and advice from people, and people who are outside your discipline, outside your immediate area, who will look at you in a fresh way and open up ideas that you may not have thought about.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 16:36] Do you have any advice on how to retain competitive advantage in the male dominated, dominated environment?

[Professor Janeen Baxter - 16:45] Well, certainly, you've got to love what you're doing. And I think I really found my passion in sociology, way back in my first year at ANU, when I had no idea what sociology was, or social sciences. And I just open my eyes to understanding things that I'd never thought about before. So... and I haven't lost that passion, you know, 35 years later, or whatever it is, possibly longer. So you've got to love what you do, you've got to be prepared to work hard. But I think also, being prepared to step outside your comfort zone and do something on a project or working with people that you may not necessarily have thought about working with before, if you can, moving around. So some of the biggest opportunities have come to me when I have moved from one place to another, either within the university or across universities. And I remember, as a postdoc taking up an opportunity to go and work in the United States at a big university in Wisconsin, and again, I wasn't quite sure what this would bring, was it a good idea? You know, taking time out. I had had a job offer here in Australia, and it seemed pretty risky to take this short term position, but I did, and it was the best thing that I did, you know, it was a really good choice. And again, it opened up that international network to me, which I've drawn on throughout my career, and the mentors that I had in Wisconsin became some of my closest friends and have mentored me all the way through in a, in a very informal way. But again, it was it was a really good choice. So yeah, it was a step outside your comfort zone. Work hard. And if you don't enjoy what you're doing, then think about what are the other opportunities that you might pursue?

[Dr Elena Danilova - 18:51] In our journey and you never said 'oh think outside the box', because you probably don't think there is a box. [laughs] You know, using your own words "Careers are never linear. There are ups and downs." What is your anchor in life that keeps you with your goals and keeps you on the path towards your goals? Do you have any advice?

[Professor Janeen Baxter - 19:14] Well my anchor in life is my family. So I have two daughters and a husband. And you know, they're the most important things in my life. So there's been a lot of achievements and I'm, you know, getting my PhD. That trip to Wisconsin, certainly winning the Centre of Excellence, and then getting a second round of funding. They're fantastic achievements, and very, very proud of all those achievements. But my anchor in life is the next generation, my children and the next generation of researchers. So one of the things that the centre is trying to do is to open up opportunities for social science researchers into the future and think about how we can build Social Science for the next generation of researchers. So they're the things that I'm most proud of. And I think, at the end of my career, when I look back at it, you know, the PhD, all of those achievements are very important, getting into the Academy as you mentioned, being on committees, terrific. You know, I really am proud that I was able to do that. But my most proudest achievements are my two daughters, and the students and postdocs who are going to be continuing on and hopefully, continuing to do the work that we've laid the foundations for.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 20:36] Well, looking at your career retrospectively, what were the most important turning points? And would you have done anything differently?

[Professor Janeen Baxter - 20:44] You know, at the time, there were some turning points that were difficult. So I, I, after the postdoc in Wisconsin, I had a position at the ANU in Canberra in the Research School of Social Sciences, which was a research fellowship. And at the end of that the contract was not extended, which I'd hoped it would be, and I'd done very well there. And, and I moved to a new position at University of Tasmania, which, you know, seemed like a bit of a, you know, a long way away, and I wasn't quite sure, you know, it was a remote part of Australia, regional university, not nearly as many resources as, as ANU and I wasn't sure if it was the best move, but in again, in hindsight it was a terrific move, because again, I was moved into teaching, which I hadn't had the opportunity to do before. I had fantastic colleagues, I had a lot of opportunities there, which I wouldn't have had, if I'd stayed at ANU. Different kinds of opportunities, was able to supervise an Indigenous student who's now had a terrific career. And so yeah, that was a real turning point. And I think it was really good for me to, to go to a university that was less well resourced. In a regional, I was at a regional campus, of a regional university, in a far flung state. And it turned out to be a really good experience. So again, it's those opportunities at the time you're thinking, I'm not sure this is the best career move. But in hindsight it was.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 22:19] You're a really great role model, Janeen. And what can be your advice to those young women who are possibly hesitating whether or not to pick academia for their career path?

[Professor Janeen Baxter - 22:34] It is tricky. I think, particularly now, with the COVID-19 situation and some of the downturn in international students, universities are financially more challenged than they were even a couple of years ago. So my advice would be to keep your options open, don't narrow your pathways if you don't have to. But if you love the work, and you're prepared to work hard, then I think there are still opportunities there. And, you know, I would say, you know, go for it, if, if that's if that's your passion. And I think that's the most important thing, really, you've got to love what you're doing. But keep it balanced. Look after yourself. Don't neglect your health and your well-being don't neglect time with friends and family. Because those things are also very important, and I think make you a better academic and a better researcher, so, so keep that perspective. But don't give up on your dreams. And if you love it, there are always pathways and, and take those unexpected opportunities, which may not look like an opportunity at the time, but in hindsight may open up new pathways that you didn't even know about. And so there's many ways, there are many pathways. And don't just assume that it's got to be linear from one stage to the next. But, you know, it may be up and down. But some of those downs can lead to, you know, new opportunities that in that you don't know about yet.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 24:08] Thank you so much for taking the time with us today this morning. And thank you for sharing your experiences and your wisdom.

Professor Janeen Baxter - 24:15] It's been a pleasure. Thank you.

Dr Elena Danilova - 24:16] 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. The series is produced by Dr. Elena Danilova, with technical production by John Anderson. If you enjoy 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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