Coastal engineering conference displays winning actions and attitudes in support of women

Karen Palmer from the University of Tasmania on representing WICGE and some inspiring conversations had at the 2019 Australasian Coasts and Ports Conference.

Presenting the WICGE award to Ana Paula Da Silva from Griffith University, winner of the best conference paper by a female-lead author at the Australasian Coasts and Ports Conference 10-13 September 2019, Hobart.

Last week I attended the Australasian Coasts and Ports Conference in Hobart, and was thrilled to speak on behalf of WICGE; opening the women’s networking event and awarding the best paper by a female-lead author. This opportunity provided the catalyst for a series of unexpected and inspiring conversations over the course of the 3-day conference about gender equality in our field.

The conference attendance was a new record for Coasts and Ports, a total of 418 coastal specialists. However, only 11% of these were women (I do not have any information on numbers of non-binary or other genders). Here are some stories and reflections on the conversations I had at the conference, I hope they inspire you too!

A girl’s choice

A father of two told me about his confident daughters, and how with continuous encouragement and support in STEM they were simply not interested, and were choosing to pursue other passions instead. How lucky these girls are to have a dad engaged with them in their education and raising them to follow their dreams! One woman shared that she had left her scientific research career after feeling funnelled into an area outside of her interest, and not supported by her workplace. Luckily for her students, she now brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the classroom in her role as a science teacher, but perhaps her former field has also lost an important asset.

Network power

Several early-career women talked to me about their uncertainty in returning to the workforce after having children. This is something I certainly relate to! One said she wanted to stay home and enjoy her fast-growing babies, and did exactly that, but found that returning to a challenging career at 30+ years required stamina and self-confidence – both in short supply. Another woman talked about how being older compared to men at the same career stage made her feel inadequate, and how those men seemed to speak more confidently with less preparation. These feelings were coupled with guilt for being away from children. We agreed that sharing our experiences with other women helped to reduce the sense of isolation and build confidence.

You go girl!

A father told me that two out of his three daughters so far loved STEM subjects at school and often asked for maths problems at home. He  also said that he had taken photos of all the women he saw presenting so that he could show them to his girls when he got home. How awesome! Having female scientists to look up to has been enormously influential to me. One is Associate Professor Irene Penesis, my math lecturer at the UTAS Australian Maritime College, who presented at the conference her recent successful bid of $329million for a Blue Economy research partnership. In the classroom she is brilliant – confident, articulate, and running mental calculations on her feet. She is currently leading the largest CRC grant and the largest investment in Blue Economy worldwide – ever.

Quotas and creches

Efforts by the conference organising committee to attract and support greater female attendance were substantial and supported by business and individuals alike. A sponsored creche was offered to support families with young children who would otherwise not be able to attend (women tend to be the main beneficiaries because statistically they have greater child caring responsibilities, not to mention breastfeeding ability). Female keynote speakers and session chairs were invited to increase the visibility of women at the conference. My conference dinner company told me about ideas to lower the University entrance score by 10% for female engineering candidates to increase enrolments. These practical and strategic, if sometimes controversial initiatives are to be congratulated and demonstrate tangible efforts to remove gender-based barriers and promote gender balance.

Where can I find a woman?

What about when an organisation in a male-dominant STEM field wants to improve their gender imbalance, and can’t? One manager told me his search for filling a coastal engineering role had yielded zero female applicants. It is hard to appoint a woman when there isn’t one. Many commented over the course of the three days about the need to reach girls in schools and talk about the many exciting opportunities available to them in coastal geoscience and engineering. Thinking so many years before payoff in terms of actual candidates requires investment and long-term commitment. The conference initiative to invite six year 10 students along to listen to talks on the first day was an excellent thought. As another woman said to me, you just don’t know what single experience offered to a child will be the one that sticks with them and inspires them in their later life.

My own home was in disarray while I was busy. During the conference the roof of my sons’ school blew off in a storm, leaving my partner juggling two kids at home with work deadlines, which I am pleased to boast he managed with good grace and high skill. His support of my career and aspirations has been essential, just as I have supported his over the years. I loved having dads talk to me about the children they were missing back at home, and the empathy for partners left to manage single-handed. I loved meeting capable women who don’t mind in the slightest they are surrounded by men, they just want equal opportunities and to be valued for their contributions. It is this mutual respect and value placed on inclusion that I admire and gives me good reason for optimism.


Karen Palmer UTAS

I am interested in the way sea level is shaped by the coast, and how the coast is shaped by sea level. I am a research assistant at the University of Tasmania, Hobart.

Discipline of Geography and Spatial Sciences, University of Tasmania


Posted on: 22/09/2019, by :