From shy science student to trailblazer for women in science – Robyn Porter OAM

For someone who never set hard and fast goals for life, Professionals Australia member, Robyn Porter has a staggering list of achievements, recently capped off by a Medal of the Order of Australia, which she was awarded in June 2021.

“I’m not one of those people who plan - let’s just go with the flow and see where we end up.”

For Robyn, ‘going with the flow’ has led to a lifetime of incredible contributions to science and the community, and an exceptional career spanning scientific research, the public service and senior leadership positions within Professionals Australia, all while raising three children, as a single parent after her husband sadly passed away early in their marriage.

In addition to these astonishing achievements, Robyn has been a trailblazer for women in Australia’s science industry and public service.

But her evolution into a science superstar didn’t follow a linear path.

Robyn’s journey began in the inner west of Sydney. Growing up in Dulwich Hill, the eldest of four girls, she was the third generation of her family to attend Sydney Girls High School and remembers the long days of travel and school, which began at 7:30am and didn’t finish until well after 5:30pm.

At Sydney Girls High School, she initially had a strong interest in languages, but a family move, and a change of schools led to an interest in chemistry and physics, which would ultimately develop into a lifelong passion for science.

“When I changed high schools I discovered science and it just worked. My brain works really well as a scientist. It’s taken me to some really interesting places, and I haven’t regretted any of it.”

It was also during high school that Robyn discovered two further passions that would shape her life - a love of law and a passion for helping others.

“On Saturday afternoons a group of my friends and I would go to a first year law student’s house who was blind, to help him with his studies. We would take turns reading his text books to him, and we’d all discuss law. It was then that I started developing my own interest in law.”

By the time Robyn was approaching years 11 and 12, she had a clear idea of where she was headed.

“I knew by the time I had to pick my subjects for years 11 and 12 that I really wanted to do science, and that was where my real interest lived. I did top level chemistry and physics and the second highest level maths.”

“I managed to get a second round offer for the Canberra College of Advanced Education (now the University of Canberra) and got into a chemistry degree.”

And so, at just 17 years of age, Robyn packed up and moved to Canberra to start the first year of her degree making her family enormously proud in the process.

Robyn recalled that her grandparents would say “this is our granddaughter. She’s going to uni and she’s doing chemistry!”

Despite some advances in women’s education and employment opportunities, in 1976 women in Australia still faced extraordinary levels of sexism and a lack of representation, especially in the male dominated areas of science and engineering at universities.

“My physics class was a bit of a shock in one way. There were 96 males and only 8 females in that class.”

It was in her first electronics class that Robyn confronted the ugly face of sexism which was prevalent at the time, and it would deeply shape her character and the way she chose to conduct herself as a female professional and leader.

“On the first day of class, we sat down, and the lecturer said ‘girls can’t do electronics’. He was that blatant.”

“Each of the girls was paired up with a male. So the guy I was with was a good friend of mine.”

“We did the same experiments, reports, results and then undertook the same discussions. We took care to ensure we did not plagiarise each other’s work.”

“He would receive marks of 85 or 90 for his work, but if I received a mark of 55, I was doing well.”

“I was coming out of a painfully shy phase, so I didn’t know how to stand up for myself.”

Robyn worked her way through several more years at uni, but in a reminder that life gets in the way of best laid plans, she didn’t finish her degree straight away.

“I had started school at age 4, spent 12 years in school, and another 4 years at university. I was over it.”

After meeting her first husband, getting married, and moving to Sydney Robyn would return to Canberra, with renewed focus and determination and would complete her degree with a flurry of distinctions and high distinctions in 1984.

After having her first child, Robyn’s passion for science would first take her into the lab, where she worked as a laboratory assistant over eight years, first in western Sydney at the Hawkesbury Agricultural College (now Western Sydney University, Richmond College) and then landed at the School of Biochemistry at the Australian National University. While she loved being in the lab, Robyn recalls some unusual challenges.

“Due to the caustic nature of the chemicals, to clean up we wore a heavy-duty lab coat, a heavy-duty rubber apron, heavy duty boots and rubber gloves. The full works.”

“One day I literally had to wear the lab coat home because my skirt started dissolving on me, literally dissolving on me. It was not decent by the time I was due to go home. To this day I still have no idea exactly how that happened.”

With a desire to explore new horizons, Robyn decided to look further afield taking a job in the Australian Government’s Patent Office as a Patent Examiner.

“I absolutely loved the Patent Office, because it gave me an opportunity to use my science and chemistry, and also to use my knowledge of law.”

But despite thriving in her job and climbing rapidly through the ranks, life was set to throw another curve ball at Robyn and her family. Her husband Graham would be diagnosed with serious heart and kidney conditions.

“We wanted to have more children but I said to Graham that I didn’t want to raise further children on my own. Not long after that I found out I was pregnant with twins!”

With Graham becoming increasingly ill, and deciding to take over home care duties, Robyn began working full time. She no longer felt as challenged at the Patent Office and began thinking about new opportunities.

As fate would have it, she took a call from a colleague in another government agency who told her about a new and exciting job opportunity.

“She said that this job was lots of hard work, lots of long hours, lots of travel and lots of champagne.”

“My friend wasn’t interested but it sounded really interesting to me, so I applied and got the job.”

“It was with the Commonwealth Government’s Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) Program and let me tell you it was the perfect job description.”

“The work was full on, there was no way you could take any time off and you worked so hard.”

“I fell in love with CRCs, absolutely fell in love with them. Because the work was so interesting. I didn’t just do the chemistry, I did biotech, information technology and mining.”

“I could talk to scientists, understand in general terms their research, see all this new and exciting stuff happening, and I got to be part of it. On top of this, I also got to negotiate and manage contracts”.

Robyn is so passionate about the massive contribution CRCs have made to Australian industry and science, that she’s completing a PhD on them as her ‘retirement project’.

“It was the work of a CRC that led to UV ratings being included in our weather reports.”

“You know when you go to a supermarket and you can buy bags of salad leaves? The preparation to get those leaves into the bag, that special plastic that the new bag is, all of that came from a CRC.”

It was around this time that Robyn first became involved in APESMA, the predecessor to Professionals Australia.

She would go on to hold a range of key leadership positions including Vice President of the ACT Branch Committee in 1997-1999, President of the ACT Branch 2000- 2010, President of the Scientists Division 2014-2019 and National Secretary 2009 –2019.

“Professionals Australia is so important as it gives you support and access. Support in your working life, but access to that volume of knowledge that you don’t know you need until you actually need it.”

“Whenever something has happened in the workplace that doesn’t seem right, there’s a number I can call and get answers to my questions.”

“When I needed an employment contract, one of the PA staff helped me write it, and I’ve also had someone from Professionals Australia review and improve my CV.”

As a leader within Professionals Australia, she’s been extremely proud of the thought leadership contribution the organisation has made to the science sector and has thoroughly enjoyed working toward the collective betterment of the industry.

“In 2014/15 we launched a report called “Still the clever country?” which set out the way forward for science in Australia, how we can reap the benefits and make a difference to the country. It was so well thought of that the then Chief Scientist Ian Chubb, launched it for us.”

“I just love being with likeminded people and making a real contribution.”

Robyn highlights that a key Professionals Australia policy made her role and contribution to PA possible.

“APESMA - now PA has a childcare policy for the honorary officers. If what is stopping you from participating in union work or committees is childcare, with the permission of the chair, PA will pay for your childcare for that meeting.”

With her husband Graham sadly passing in July 2000, and with three children to look after, Robyn cites the policy as critical in supporting her involvement in PA.

“Without that policy, I could not have contributed to Professionals Australia at the time. That policy is still there, and it’s not limited to mothers, it’s there for all parents.”

Shaped by her early experiences of sexism, discrimination and injustice, Robyn determined that not only would she be heard, but that she would create a workplace culture inclusive of everyone.

“I once went for a job at the Department of Defence, and I didn’t get the job because I was quote ‘too assertive.’”

“What was even funnier was that I had laryngitis that day. It was a job interview and I could barely speak. With laryngitis, I was still ‘too assertive.’”

“I try as much as I can to change that type of culture. I’m really careful to make sure people are heard. Even if I’m not chairing a meeting and I feel that someone wants to say something, I will interrupt to make sure that person has an opportunity to speak.”

“It’s taken a lot of time learning how to do this.”

It wasn’t until Robyn received her Medal of the Order of Australia in June 2021 and posted news of it to Twitter, that she fully realised the impact she’d had on the workplaces she had been part of.

“One of the replies to her OAM Twitter post was:

‘You should have got it for wearing colour to meetings, rather than black and grey. You were the only one that made me feel that wearing red was acceptable - representation matters.’

“Many people wear black to blend in, but I always wear colours, I’ll wear red and I’ll wear pink.”

Perhaps unknowingly, Robyn’s confidence to be unashamedly female in a male dominated world, to refuse to blend in, gave other women confidence to do the same.

Despite the progress that’s been made, Robyn still believes there is significant work to be done on improving gender equity in modern Australian workplaces.

“There is still a concept in some people’s minds that women can’t do certain things. Back to my experience, ‘women can’t do electronics’ well they can! If they want to, they can!”

It’s been her impact as a trailblazer for women in her profession, her leadership at Professionals Australia, along with her incredible personal contribution to the science sector and community, coupled with her amazing career in the public service that makes Robyn an incredibly worthy recipient of a Medal of the Order of Australia.

When describing how she felt about receiving the prestigious award, she speaks with significant emotion.

“It made me cry.”

“In some ways I’m a little embarrassed, and it’s that shyness coming through. I don’t necessarily want to be out in front, in the public eye.”

“I’m just happy sitting in the background doing what I do, linking people up, doing my little bit.”

“I’m just overwhelmed that people think that I’m deserving of this accolade, because I don’t think what I do is anything special, because this is how you do things, what’s special about that?”

And in many ways, it’s precisely this attitude that makes Robyn exactly the type of person who should receive our nation’s greatest honour – a Medal of the Order of Australia.