The accidental academic

11 June 2020

Professor Elanor Huntington, Dean of Engineering and Computer Science at the Australian National University

It’s a little surprising to hear the Dean of Engineering and Computer Science at The Australian National University, Professor Elanor Huntington, declare: “I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.” But Professor Huntington is no stranger to defying expectations. She speaks to SAGE about her career path and bringing Australia up to speed with diversification in STEM.

Huntington grew up in a family she describes as highly quantitative. Her father was an engineer and her mother, who has worked as a business manager at CSIRO, taught her to program computers in the 1980s. “When you grow up surrounded by science and maths, it’s kind of an example of unconscious bias. I never even thought about doing something that didn’t involve STEM,” says Huntington.

Graduating with a Physics degree from the ANU in 1996 during a slow point in Australia’s employment market, Huntington recalls that “there were no jobs around. My choices were limited, but completing a PhD was one of the options.” So that’s what she did, researching laser systems at the ANU and gaining her PhD in experimental quantum optics in 2000. “At that stage, I definitely never had a burning desire to be a professor at a university.”

Subverting expectations

Huntington describes her career path since then as “fairly straight line—with a few diversions.” After completing her PhD, she spent 18 months at the Defence Science and Technology Organisation in a research role in science policy. She also held several roles in industry as a consulting engineer in laser safety, including at a laser building company in the German city of Hanover, before returning to university to teach electrical engineering at UNSW Canberra.

When asked about the challenges in her career, Huntington explains that she hasn’t always followed the expected path. “In academia, it’s expected that you’ll move between organisations in order to get a breadth of experience. Instead of moving countries permanently, I’ve used Australia as a base. This way, I’ve reworked some of the expectations of how a standard career path works.”

Huntington says that an important career decision she’s made has been actively seeking to join organisations where she could thrive. “That’s meant a few sideways moves in order to find something suitable.” She has  prioritised seeking out employers who could facilitate her skills growth. “I’ve always had the great privilege of having really good bosses.” Huntington has had the confidence to stand by her decisions. “Sometimes when I’ve changed roles, people have suggested it was going to be the worst career decision I’ve ever made. And it never has been.”

About 10 years into her role at UNSW Canberra, Huntington “accidentally” became Head of School. Accidental it may have been, but the position cemented Huntington’s passion for making a positive contribution in academia. In 2014, she moved into her current position, as the Dean of Engineering and Computer Science at the ANU. In her current role, she’s responsible for the strategic objectives of the College and the wellbeing of about 350 staff and 3000 students.

Setting staff and students up for success

“Broadly, my job is to set people up for success,” explains Huntington. “That includes expressing our contemporary mission as a university. Watching other people succeed and helping them in their journey keeps me coming back every day.”

When she came to the ANU, Huntington was the first female Dean of Engineering and Computer Science and only the second female professor in the College. “Now 35 per cent of academics in the college are women, up from 17 per cent five years ago.  Things have changed significantly over the last few years.”

The ANU was awarded with a SAGE Athena SWAN Bronze accreditation in 2019 in recognition of its ongoing commitment to improving gender equity. Huntington’s hard work to achieve gender diversity within the College has contributed to that role. However, her mission to improve diversity in STEM is only beginning.

The ANU has set a long-term target of demographic representational parity throughout staff and students by 2033. Huntington describes what this looks like: “50/50 female. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in proportion to the population. Somewhat more geographically diverse.” It is, she admits, “a  hard target”, particularly in the field of engineering.

Why we need the next great wave of engineers

The percentage of women in the College of Engineering and Computer Science at the ANU has increased from 20 to 23 per cent from 2015–2017. But while excellent progress is being made, achieving gender parity in engineering will be a challenge. It’s not only a question of the pipeline, but the retention of female engineers in Australia, where less than 13 per cent of practising engineers are female.

It’s an issue that Huntington believes is intrinsically linked to the future of engineering—and society as a whole. At the 2017 TEDxSydney Convention, Huntington gave a TED Talk titled “Why we need engineers now more than ever”. In this talk, she described our present time as “one of the most profound transformative periods.”

“Right now, the combination of the Internet of Things, social media and Artificial Intelligence means that the next great engineering discipline is about to be born.” Huntington explains that this new discipline brings together people, technological systems, and science in a highly distributed, interconnected world. Her current research interests in the control of quantum systems are strongly linked to this new age of engineering. Meanwhile, her colleagues at the recently established 3Ai Institute at the ANU are tackling multi-disciplinary research questions related to AI-enabled systems.

Huntington believes strongly that “the next great wave of engineers” needs to be a group of diverse people. “And the way we’re going to find them is through the stories we tell.” That means diversifying representations of engineers.

Next steps for inclusion and diversity

For Huntington, achieving an inclusive environment is just as important as fulfilling diversity targets. “Because inclusion is qualitative, it’s much harder to find a quantitative target.  You can hire a more diverse cohort, but it’s important that they feel included once they’re in the workplace.”

Broadening the definition of diversity is also a priority for Huntington. “There’s difference across all dimensions, not just gender: socioeconomic background, career trajectory, do you identify as a first Australian? We’ve got to get to a point where the face of our profession represents society as a whole.”

On the Athena SWAN pathway, the next challenge Huntington and the ANU will face is moving from institutional to organisational sub-unit level accreditation. Huntington describes this level as “where the rubber really hits the road. The most important part is what we do next with SAGE, we want to move down the path of constantly reflecting, constantly adapting and getting better at this.”

From Huntington’s perspective, the journey to achieve equity in STEM and academia is still in its early stages. “It’s great that we’ve started, it’s great that we’re on the path, but we’ve still got a long way to go.”