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Spotlight on women in STEMM: Dr Peta Dzidic

Dr Peta Dzidic, School of Psychology and Speech Pathology, chooses her collaborators carefully, and to date it has served her well. As an undergraduate student, Dr Dzidic developed a passion for the social sciences after attending a guest lecture by a scientist from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). She then went on to conduct research in the field of community psychology, an area she has worked in since 2003. Dr Dzidic now works as a Teaching Research Academic in the School of Psychology and Speech Pathology.


Dr Dzidic with some of her HDR and fourth year research students - L-R Kaitlyn Holyman, Jessica Harrison, Hannah Uren, Tamara Lipscome, Jack Farrugia, Dr Dzidic, Matthew Phillips, Robert Wells.
Dr Dzidic with some of her HDR and fourth year research students - L-R Kaitlyn Holyman, Jessica Harrison, Hannah Uren, Tamara Lipscome, Jack Farrugia, Dr Dzidic, Matthew Phillips, Robert Wells.

What sparked your passion for science, and when did you decide you wanted to build a career in this area?

A third-year undergraduate psychology guest lecture given by the leader of a research group at the CSIRO sparked my passion in the social sciences. His lecture made me realise the necessity for community and social psychology within ‘hard science’ settings. I later went on to work with him and his team.

Describe your area of research.

I conduct research in the field of community psychology; a discipline that considers individual and community needs in context. Much of my research is best explored through qualitative methods, whereby I apply my methodological expertise to areas that include: community participation, social change, cultural hegemony and environmental and social justice.

How long have you been at Curtin, and where did you work/what did you do prior to joining the University?

I have worked in the field of community psychology since the end of 2003, however commenced my role as a Teaching Research Academic in the School of Psychology in 2011. Prior to Curtin, I worked as a senior consultant in the private sector, and in the public sector as a researcher at the CSIRO.

Dr Dzidic with colleagues outside Peabody College, Vanderbilt University, Nashville - L-R Professor Doug Perkins, Dr Dzidic, Dr Emily Castell, Professor Paul Speer.
Dr Dzidic with colleagues outside Peabody College, Vanderbilt University, Nashville - L-R Professor Doug Perkins, Dr Dzidic, Dr Emily Castell, Professor Paul Speer.

What have been your biggest challenges in your career, specifically as a woman in STEMM, and how did you overcome them?

Experiencing the impact of unconscious bias has been the most challenging aspect of my career. For example, I once co-facilitated an interview with a senior male researcher. I asked the questions but the participant would turn and answer to my colleague (who had also noticed this pattern in response).

During the interview, our participant posed a question about the research to my colleague, to which he responded, “I’m not sure actually, we will have to ask Peta that, she is the boss!”

Issues like unconscious bias need to be combatted at multiple levels – at micro levels like that illustrated in this example, where colleagues are champions, but also more broadly through systemic efforts, such as the Athena SWAN Project. Addressing gender inequality demands a cultural change. This is complex, takes time and requires us to challenge issues at all levels.

What have been your biggest successes/successes you are most proud of?

I recently co-authored a chapter in the American Psychological Association Handbook of Community Psychology. As a student, I recall reading and devouring the contents of an earlier edition, and being both overwhelmed and inspired by the knowledge shared by ‘the greats’ of my discipline. To now be a handbook author, surrounded by these greats, feels remarkable and is an absolute honour. It is similarly an honour to supervise and work with my fourth year and higher degree by research students.

What has assisted you in developing your career – for example, a mentor, supportive work environment, family support etc.?

I choose my collaborators carefully and invest in those relationships. I surround myself with those who think critically, who are not driven by ego, and who have a healthy sense of humour about the complexities of working in higher education, irrespective of gender. Having this community has assisted me the most in my career development because we work hard to get the job done, and do so in manner that is mutually supportive, as opposed to paternalistic.

What makes a successful scientist?

Allowing your research questions to be driven by the substantive domain; that is, being driven by real world issues that require investigation. Further, a drive to prevent research from ‘being shelved’ and ensuring our research has both academic and genuine community impact.

Dr Dzidic with friends and colleagues from Peabody College, Vanderbilt University.
Dr Dzidic with friends and colleagues from Peabody College, Vanderbilt University.

What would you say to young girls and women who are interested in developing careers in STEMM?

The dominant culture in Australia has a capacity to fashion a false belief within ourselves that, as women, we are not worthy or capable of developing a career, particularly within STEMM.

Start noticing the seemingly-little things around us that happen from the day we are born that contribute to the development of these false beliefs, and speak up about them. Women, and gender-diverse individuals, have as much a right to pursue a career in STEMM as anyone else. We have the right, and we have so much to contribute.

What are the barriers to women participating successfully in STEMM areas – systemic, personal, and professional – and what can we do to improve this?

Perhaps the biggest barrier to participation is that women are often seen as a liability. Career breaks, and realistic and flexible working hours, are necessary/benefit everyone, and should not be something that is bound or associated with a particular gender.

My sense is that addressing barriers to participation requires broader cultural change regarding what it means to be a scientist, researcher, and/or an academic, and the expectations that are associated with these roles similarly require challenging.

On reflection, is there anything you would change about your career?

I often wish I had a more ‘conventional’ academic career. However, after gaining my PhD, going on to work in the public and private sectors equipped me for the challenges higher education presents.

From taking the unconventional route, I have worked across Australia, and developed methodological knowledge, skills engaging with diverse communities, and expertise managing research projects and people.

The issue I am currently changing within myself is my tendency to apologise; a practice that has seen me undermine myself and my career.

Please list any major awards/grants etc., which reflect your professional success?

  • Awarded Curtin Student Guild Excellence in Teaching, Postgraduate Supervisor, 2013.
  • Awarded CSIRO Land and Water Strategic Excellence Awards, Partnerships Category, 2008, for brokering strong working relationships across the governance jurisdictions that are responsible for northern Australia and instigating valuable collaboration amongst stakeholders.

Anything else you’d like to add?

In solidarity!