To mark International Women's Day this year we are celebrating some of the professional and academic staff who make our College a world-leading institution for research and teaching on Asia and the Pacific.
In this piece, we chat to Professor Sharon Bessell, Director of Gender Equity and Diversity at the Crawford School of Public Policy.
What inspired you to get into your field of research and why?
My main area of research is social policy for children who are vulnerable or at risk. When I was in high school I wanted to be a primary school teacher, and then later thought about international law. My research is something of an odd combination of those two early areas of interest - much of my work has focused on the human rights of children and rights-based approaches to social policy for children, with a particular interest in the influence of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. My PhD research focused on the ways international norms and standards impacted on child labour policy in Indonesia. It was very much a standard political science thesis around norms diffusion. After only a few days of fieldwork in Indonesia, it became obvious to me that in focusing on the role of international actors and the national government, my research was missing the perspective of those who were most important to debates: working children. I expanded my research to include the views and experiences of children, which was a critical decision. Ever since, my research has included participatory methodologies and has focused on the impact of policy (both positive and negative) on those for whom particular policies are ostensibly designed.
Who is a woman in your field you look up to?
Of all the women who have inspired me, my mum is at the top of the list as an incredibly intelligent and compassionate person, whose support for me was always 100%. In my field, the late Dr Judith Ennew was a wonderful mentor, who had a profound influence on the way I approach both my research and teaching. We are fortunate at ANU to have some amazing women doing incredible work across campus - many come to mind, particularly Professor Kim Rubenstein, whose scholarship and connection with people are both inspirational.
What is a teaching/research project you are currently working on that motivates you?
I have two projects at present that really motivate me. One is on changing childhoods in contexts of social and economic transformation - that research is taking place across five countries. I am leading the Australian component, which focuses on small coastal communities in Tasmania. I'm originally from Tasmania, and know the challenges of providing high quality education and creating opportunities for children and young people in small communities - so that research is very close to my heart. Another project that motivates me aims to find better ways of addressing childhood poverty, and focuses on Indonesia. The gendered and generational dimensions of poverty are a central focus of my work at present - including through a very large project that has developed a gender-sensitive measure of multi-dimensional poverty (the Individual Deprivation Measure). That work motivates me because it has the potential to make a positive difference in people's lives.
I am always motivated by teaching - I'm fortunate to teach subjects I am deeply committed to; and our students at the Crawford School have such incredible experience that teaching is always a privilege.
What are you most proud of?
I am most proud of my two amazing children - Madeleine and Liam. But on the work front, I think I am most proud of having had the opportunity to contribute to the development of the social studies of childhood as an emerging field of study. As part of that work, I've been able to contribute sound evidence - and to bring children's priorities and experiences - to policy debates on a range of issues, including child labour, child protection, and the human rights of children in out-of-home care.
What's your advice to your younger self about choosing the right path and juggling life's demands?
I'm not sure about advice to myself, but my advice to institutions - including universities - is that we have to take the competing pressures on women (and indeed on men as well) far more seriously. In 2018, work-life balance is as terrible as ever for academics (and in many professions) and we need to think seriously and urgently about the structures and institutions that act against better balance. Only in doing so will young women be able to make choices that allow for both a career and a personal life.
Professor Sharon Bessell is Director of Gender Equity and Diversity at the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific. She also teaches at the Crawford School, and heads the ANU Children’s Policy Centre. Additionally, Sharon leads the Individual Deprivation Measure (IDM) Program, a partnership between ANU, the International Women’s Development Agency and the Australian Government.