Katherine Christ is a lecturer in accounting at the University of South Australia with expertise in sustainability accounting.
Her PhD research focused on water management for the wine industry. Her current focus is on modern slavery and how to recognise and account for it in contemporary business practice.
My research is primarily concerned with sustainability accounting. Business accounting is traditionally focused on economic and financial aspects, but sustainability is a very broad notion that incorporates the social, environmental and economic aspects of a business. It’s about getting the optimal outcomes across all three of those dimensions.
So my research concerns issues like water accounting and reducing waste. At the moment, my primary research is on accounting for modern slavery. A lot of people aren’t aware that there is a lot of slavery embedded in the products they use every day. We need to start making businesses aware and more accountable.
I fell into research. It wasn’t something I intended to do. I had a lot of health problems throughout my life, starting when I was 12 years old and I was bedridden for six months. Despite having a scholarship to a private school, I had to leave at Year 10 because the school couldn’t deal with my health challenges. So I completed Years 11 and 12 by distance education. I knew I was never going to be able to do the normal nine-to-five grind.
When I started doing accounting I discovered I really liked numbers. I thought I could have my own business, but in order to do that, I had to go to university. While I was at university I got involved with teaching and tutoring and really loved it.
Halfway through my Honours, which I was doing part-time, my supervisor had a stroke and resigned. Then I was left with effectively no project and no supervisor. My research mentor, who was a professor there at the time, decided to take me on despite the fact he already had nine students. He said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get you through this.’ He suggested I look at doing a project in sustainability environmental management accounting.
I’d never read anything about this and he gave me a week to give him a response. I got into the literature and discovered that this was not just accounting, which I love, but accounting that can really make a difference beyond just increasing the financial bottom line. This is something that business needs to sit up and pay attention to.
My research into modern slavery accounting was also something I fell into. The Australian Government started a parliamentary inquiry in 2017 into whether we need a modern Slavery Act. Part of the act would be modelled on the UK legislation, which has a reporting requirement for business. The area is now growing and lot of people are now coming to me and our team wanting information.
Highlights and Challenges
Getting the academic publications is great, but what really gives me a buzz is when a chartered accountant or an end-user comes to me and they want information about something, because then I know I’m not just an academic in my ivory tower; my research has actually got the potential to really make a difference out there.
There are other highlights. When I was doing my PhD, I was one of 11 students funded by the Australian Grape and Wine Authority. I got a full scholarship, so they paid all the expenses related to my research. That was a bit of a buzz moment. In academia there are lots of different buzz moments but there’s also a lot of downers, like article rejections and ridiculously opinionated reviews. You have to remember the highs but not let the lows get to you.
What’s also extremely challenging, and I believe it’s at all institutions, is that we seem to be getting more and more teaching and administration thrust on us. I’m a teaching research academic, so what we used to get 75 hours for, they’re now giving us 37.5 hours to do the same amount. This is the new workload model. That’s a massive challenge.
My biggest challenge as an early career researcher was that period between getting my PhD and getting an ongoing position. That really is hell and I think for all academics that is so excessively stressful. You need to do sessional teaching and casual teaching, so no one’s paying you to research and write, but you’ve got to keep that up when you are going for those jobs. You need to make sure you’re above the competition.
On a personal level, I have had a lot of health problems and it’s learning to balance that. I think I’m quite lucky, and I think for a lot of women in particular in academia, it’s hard work but it can be quite flexible as well
Impact and Legacy
My biggest buzz comes from communicating with end-users. I’m hoping to be able to extend my research, particularly within the modern slavery area. I’ve applied for a grant from CPA Australia to develop a modern slavery compass as a tool to help business and as something that can be easily communicated to different stakeholders. If we’re successful we’ll develop this tool and run workshops for the CPA so their members understand how to put the legislation into practice.
What we are seeing internationally is that businesses don’t know what the first step is, because modern slavery crosses so many different disciplines and divisions within a business. As well as developing some tools to help business and training those end users, it’s about communicating back to the general public via some mainstream articles, and getting the message out to the academic community through publications and conference presentations.
I also want to help bring in the next generation of researchers and get them passionate about modern slavery. I want to encourage researchers to have an interest in sustainability, and also to get out there and help business realise that it’s not just about the financial bottom line. If they really want to have a long-term perspective, they need to consider the social, economic and environmental aspects. I’m a bit humble about it all. I don’t expect to be the big name out there, but if I can make a difference in this area, that will be my legacy.
Advice to Younger Women
I think academic research can be a really good career option for young women for a number of reasons. It’s got a lot of flexibility. Not everyone works nine to five. It doesn’t mean you’re not contributing, it doesn’t mean you don’t have a full-time job. There are a lot of options, but it is hard work. There are possibilities and just because you can’t see them now doesn’t mean they’re not there.
Find good mentors. That is really important. It might not necessarily be a mentor at your own institution. It could be someone outside the institution, but contact people, find out, arrange to have a chat with them if you’re at a conference.
The top academics can be brilliant for your career, they can open so many doors, but they only give you one shot. You only get one chance to win people over. Don’t just limit yourself to Australia. Don’t be scared to throw yourself out there. A lot of people get scared, but it’s never as bad as you think it’s going to be. You have to trust yourself.