ANU appoints Australia’s first female professor of demography

24 January 2017

I think that women don't put themselves forward for promotion, and if they do and don't succeed, they take it very badly.

An "accidental academic" and leading scholar at The Australian National University (ANU) on mortality modelling has been appointed the country's first female professor of demography.

Professor Heather Booth, whose promotion in the School of Demography took effect in January, is now also the school's Director of Research.

"I'm very happy to have finally reached my goal," Professor Booth says.

Acting Vice Chancellor, Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington, congratulated Professor Booth on behalf of the university.

"Heather is one of the world's foremost demographers, particularly on the demographics of human mortality modelling," Professor Hughes-Warrington says.

"Professor Booth's an inspiring teacher, and I wish her well as the School's new head of research."

Also promoted in late 2016 to Associate Professor were her colleagues Ann Evans and Edith Gray, who is also the School's new Head.

Since late 2015 Professor Booth has been creating clearer pathways for women in demography to succeed in promotion, because she believes that gender equity imbalances in universities must be addressed.

"I think that women don't put themselves forward for promotion, and if they do and don't succeed, they take it very badly," she explains.

"It is at that stage that women need the most support. Men seem to be able to recover from the blow, as it were, much easier, and are more likely to challenge it at the time."

Professor Booth wants to see mentoring and recognition for people who do not succeed in promotion rounds to be supported, and will raise this with the CASS Gender Equity Sub-Committee in 2017.

She has mentored and supervised the next generation of demographers, including three women who graduated with their doctorates in 2016: Cuc Hoang, Mahin Raissi, and Pilar Rioseco.

Professor Booth first learned of demography during a high school geography class in England, and studied demography and social statistics at the London School of Economics.

A Masters at Southampton followed, then three years working at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Professor Booth gained her doctorate from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, supervised by Bill Brass, and in the 1980s moved to the South Pacific to analyse Vanuatu's Census.

That role led to a job with the former South Pacific Commission, now Pacific Community, in New Caledonia, where she stayed for five years, later becoming a consultant.

When Professor Booth first came to Australia in the 1990s, she intended to get an Australian passport and return to the South Pacific, but the ANU learned about her and offered casual work.

"I regarded the ANU as one of my consultancy clients, but as time went on, the work grew and I got a permanent position," she recalls.

"You could call me an accidental academic. I thought I would get a job in AusAID or in consultancies, and carry on working in demography and development in the Pacific."

Professor Booth's research speciality is human mortality modelling and forecasting how long people will live.

Her projects include the Social Networks and Ageing Project (SNAP) and she leads the Group on Longevity, Ageing and Mortality (GLAM).  

"We're living longer and longer and there's no end to that increase in sight," she says.

"People who a few decades ago would have lived until they're 80, now live to 90. We need to ask: What are the consequences of people living to 100?"

These consequences include giving more thought to the official retirement age, for example. People may also live longer in frailty or in disability. Politicians must recognise and plan for an ageing population, she adds.

"Population ageing is a process that will end, but an older population is essentially a permanent condition. We will get to an equilibrium where the population will be older than what it is now, and it will remain older - about 25 per cent of our population will be 65 plus."