Reading the signs and making changes for the better

Profiling Professor Heidi Drummer, Program Director, Disease Elimination, Burnet Institute

There are signs we see every day that we just take for granted. Traffic signs, finding your way signs, place name signs, transport signs and so on.

On the back of every Australian school bus there is a sign that shows a person holding a child’s hand, to signify either meeting a child from the bus or walking them to the bus.

Professor Heidi Drummer, Program Director, Disease Elimination at the Burnet Institute in Melbourne, said she had seen the sign on Aussie school buses many times.

“One day when I was looking at the sign on the school bus, I realised that it was a woman holding the child’s hand and that it was part of our ingrained language and accepted images for women,” she said.

Gender bias in images and language

Our society and the signs and messages we subliminally receive continually reinforce and perpetuate gender stereotypes.

“Why wouldn’t there be a man holding the child’s hand as well, or half the school bus signs showing women and the other half men?”

“It’s really interesting and important to look at how we use images and language. Some gender bias training we had at the Burnet Institute really brought this home to me.”

“If girls play outside people tend to say, ‘Don’t get your dress dirty’, for boys its ‘Have fun, explore and play’, there’s no mention of worrying about getting dirty,” she said.

Professor Drummer has worked at the Burnet Institute for 14 years; as well as her role as Program Director, Disease Elimination, she is also Co-Head of the Drummer/Poumbourios Laboratory.

Hepatitis C—direct-acting antivirals and a vaccine

She is currently working on three projects regarding Hepatitis C with her team at Burnet:

  • HepSeeVax: Proof-of-concept study of an Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) vaccine candidate
  • Social Networks and the Hepatitis C Virus
  • Understand how HCV evades the immune system

“The ideal outcome for the work I’m involved in would be to have a HCV vaccine to carry out a human clinical trial, to see if the vaccine provides protection,” Professor Drummer said.

“I think research into HCV is reaching a tipping point—there are direct-acting antivirals (DAA) that have had a huge impact on reducing the numbers of people who have Hepatitis C, and there is also the vaccine option which will help stop any new infections.”

“Moving forward, there will need to be a global commitment to fund the DAAs or the vaccine, but I think the world needs both therapy and vaccine to eradicate Hepatitis.”

“It will be interesting to see what happens in the next five years in this space,” she said.

Group-minded and studying with friends

Interestingly, having a career in science was never really part of Professor Drummer’s plan.

“I wasn’t a maths-science nerd at high school, but I was group-minded and definitely went along with my group of friends who were all studying chemistry, physics, math methods and specialist maths for Year 12,” she said.

“We all enjoyed studying these subjects together and have all ended up working in the sciences or medicine.”

“I ended up studying a Bachelor of Science Honours degree at the University of Melbourne. It wasn’t something I’d planned to do or set my heart on, but I’m glad I did now,” Professor Drummer said.

Conditioning: internal and external factors

Has she experienced any issues at work or during her career because of being a woman in the STEMM fields?

“I think there have been things that have happened along the way, but I’m a very persistent person, I don’t take no for an answer,” she said.

“I do think it’s harder to be heard in meetings sometimes when the meetings are made up of mostly men and, when particular comments are made, I have often asked myself ‘Would I have said that if I was a man?’”

“There are lots of internal and external factors at play as well as all the conditioning that we all receive,” she said.

“Men are usually more confident than women; I think women question themselves a lot more than men do.”

We need to take a holistic view of this complex issue

There is a lot to change and it’s not just confidence levels or being persistent.

“There really is an immense amount of work to do for gender equity, but it’s a much bigger conversation than just the language and images we use,” Professor Drummer said.

“We really need to take a holistic view of this complex and all-pervading issue and shift how people think from early childhood to school, from home to work, through everything we do.”

“Initiatives like SAGE are definitely helping in Australia’s higher education and research sector—addressing structural issues for women and other minorities, and promoting full participation in the workforce for everyone.”

“But research funding agencies, for example, NMHRC, seriously need to address systemic issues in their processes and biases, and change and update their practices to facilitate more equal grant distribution as well,” she said.

Change for the better at Burnet via SAGE

As Chair* of the Gender Equity, Diversity and Inclusion committee from 2016 to 2018 at the Burnet Institute, Professor Drummer has seen a lot of changes for the better at the Institute via the SAGE program.

“An example would be that meetings at Burnet are now never scheduled before 10am and always finish by 4pm, which allows people with children to make meetings much more easily,” she said.

“The Institute has also taken a panel pledge; our gender equity policy is much more transparent, so people can see that we are ‘leading, doing and seeing’; and we now have a gender neutral toilet, too.”

Professor Drummer has seen a real shift in people’s thinking at the Institute from the SAGE program.

“When we started the SAGE program, people would ask: ‘Why do we need to do this? Why is it like this? ’ Now they ask: ‘How can we make it better? What caused this problem? What is the solution?’”

“It’s been very rewarding to see this change happening at the Burnet Institute,” she said.

A stimulating mix of research, people, problem solving, thoughts and ideas

Other career highlights have included being able to run her own lab, training some fantastic PhD students who then have gone on to have valuable research careers, apply for grants and end up running their own labs.

“It has been a real privilege to train the next generation of scientists coming through and something I’ve enjoyed immensely,” she said.

Professor Drummer’s career sounds fascinating and stimulating—a mix of research, people, problem-solving, thoughts, ideas, and valuable and positive outcomes.

It’s appropriate that she sees the bigger picture, too: noticing things like the female gender stereotype on the Aussie school bus sign.

Because it’s clear that taking a holistic view of such a complex issue will help to move the gender equity conversation forward—just as she is doing at the Burnet Institute.


* Professor Caroline Homer AO became Chair of the Gender, Diversity and Inclusion committee at Burnet in 2019.