Catharine Lumby is Professor of Media at Macquarie University. She has published extensively on gender, sexuality and media, and been awarded seven ARC grants over the course of her career.
Before entering academia in 2000 she worked as a journalist, and continues now as a social commentator for radio, television and newspaper.
She was the foundation Chair of the Media and Communications Department at Sydney University and the foundation Director of the Journalism and Media Research Centre at UNSW.
Gender has been a primary concern since my teens, relating also to the prevention of sexual assault, domestic violence, and sexual harassment. I will always be deeply interested in why gender is such a determining factor in how we see people. We read people off their skin and their genitals essentially.
I'm guilty of this too. Class, race, gender, culture, religion—it's very hard as humans to get beyond that ‘me and them’ relationship. In my work, I’m thinking through why we have this tendency as humans to read other people that way and trying to be reflective about the default setting we seem to have.
I'm also interested in why debates in feminism become divisive so quickly. How do we envisage communal activism while acknowledging differences and being respectful of those differences? My approach to research reflects my personality: I want to be in dialogue with people. Even if we completely disagree, I think respectful dialogue is a better approach than polemics.
I grew up in a family where education was a way out, and my excitement about reading and ideas was encouraged. My parents encouraged me to ask questions. I wasn’t shut down. When you look at people who become academics or go into research, I think the decisive factor is being given permission to ask the wrong questions, or annoying questions. I suppose I'm going on for the rest of my life asking annoying questions!
One of my proudest achievements is the institution building I’ve done. For example, being asked to set up the Media and Communications Department at Sydney University. Although I had published two books and a couple of journal articles and so on and I had over 20 years of professional experience at that point, I don't know why they took a punt on me. I had no management experience. I felt absolutely obligated to deliver, and I did that with a team.
Another fantastic highlight was being asked to found the Journalism and Media Research Centre at UNSW. Again, with the assistance of a great team, we were making five million dollars a year fairly quickly. I had been told that you can't ever establish a self-funded humanities centre, but we made that work.
I've worked largely pro bono with the National Rugby League for over 13 years now, and done two large research projects for them. In 2004, the CEO, David Gallup contacted me after an allegation of a group sexual assault of a woman in Coffs Harbor. My recommendation to him was to take the temperature of the culture. You can't initiate change until you know what's going on and you can't rely on media reports. He invited me to lead a research team out of Sydney University. We spoke with players, CEOs, everyone—top down, bottom up. I was amazed at how honest the players were.
We then wrote a 200-page report for them, and, on the back of that, I worked with a team of people designing an education program called Playing By The Rules. Five years later, we repeated the research and we found a positive change in attitudes and behaviors towards women in the order of 20 per cent. That's a huge shift with many people moving in the direction we would like to see around stereotypes of women and female sexuality.
We saw a lot of change and they're now using a feminist ethical model to design their education programs. That's been an incredible opportunity: putting wheels on ideas, taking research out on the road. That gets me out of bed in the morning—I don't just want to polish ideas, shine them, and put them on a shelf.
I'm not a great fan of bureaucracy and there have been times where I thought I was being pulled in two directions. There's a compliance-driven and risk-adverse model at universities that doesn't really fit with an entrepreneurial model. On one hand they want you to bring money in but unless it's an ARC grant where the compliance is built in, it's a very slow beast. This is not to do with individual people, but with the way the systems are set up. That’s what I would nominate as the big challenge of working in the university sector.
It's very different from being a journalist where you're in a newsroom, you've got to produce things quickly, you've got red-faced, screaming men in your face. I came out of that world that taught me to meet deadlines, to write quickly and to think on my feet, and that was great training. Then you go into what seems like a much more slow-burn world. I've had to learn some patience with that; I’ve learned work-arounds. The thing that really gets me through is always laughing with my friends and my colleagues. The people I'm closest to always have a really good, dark sense of humor.
Impact and Legacy
My most important legacy I’d say is mentoring. Paying it forward, passing it on. Being there not just for women, but largely for younger women. Helping them learn from my mistakes, and being emotionally supportive to all the challenges that women juggle. I went back to work when my oldest child was three weeks old. I didn't have maternity leave and I regret that. So I really encourage female colleagues who are pregnant to take the time and to give themselves permission to take the time with that young child. I think that women still bear a huge burden around childcare and raising children, which is why I encourage them to think carefully about this. You don't have to keep producing—you've just produced a child! For me my two sons are far more important than any books I've written.
In terms of future directions, I've been working with some brilliant people recently on sexual assault and harassment on campus. That's a huge issue and we're now seeing the dam burst on sexual harassment generally, thank goodness. I'm interested in keeping track of how social media might be involved. My gut instinct tells me that this is the real third way to feminism. What is fascinating about social media is how swiftly it can bring a conversation together—far more swiftly than would have happened in the ‘70s and you don't have to organise a protest march. I think there is strength in numbers and with sexual harassment what we're seeing now is that women are not lone voices. I'm now deeply interested in how social media intersects with the gender studies area. While it can be utopian or dystopian, it can also be a force for finding a collective voice around issues
Hopefully, too I've had some impact on public debate and policy with my research. Unfortunately, because of my NRL work, the media contacts me immediately when a player's in trouble. I don't want to be the ‘appalled girl.’ Going on TV and saying ‘I'm appalled.’—that really is not my job description. I'm very involved with Rape and Domestic Violence Services of Australia and I'm now on their board. We are sick of picking up the pieces; we are interested in preventative work. So that would be my other research challenge: how do we start young with education about equality? As we saw with the Safe Schools Program, teaching equality when it comes to sexuality and gender is still hugely contentious, and I wonder why we're still living in an era where things like that seem contentious? Let's look at the evidence rather than listen to the nonsense around this stuff.
Mentoring and Support
What would I say to young women interested in a research career? ‘Hooray! We need you.’ Then I’d say, ‘find a mentor’. There are formal mentoring programs in many universities, but your mentor is not always the obvious person or the person you're assigned. A lot of early career researchers think that they can't approach someone who's a professor with a high profile because they think they are way too busy. But don't let that voice in your head. Check people out. And if someone says no to a cup of coffee, well they're a dickhead.
It has taken me until my fifties to realise that if I say yes to everyone, I take time away from the people who really matter. I don't just mean my family and friends, but also at work. If you spread yourself too thin, you're not getting your priorities straight. If you have trouble saying no, come up with a script: ‘my pet llama died and I'm still grieving.’ Maybe something more rational than a pet llama, but you need to get a script and use it because otherwise you get pulled in twenty directions.
Know that you need to take time for yourself and you don't have to do everything in a rush.
You have permission to take time. Whether it's to have children or whether it's your personal life or whether it's just because you're thinking. Sometimes we need to stand still because that's how we process ideas and universities still need to be a place of contemplation.