Understanding the gendered nature of poverty: Meet Sharon Bessell

20 May 2020

Crawford School introduces our fantastic staff, so you can meet the people of Asia and the Pacific’s leading graduate policy school.

In this interview, Policy and Governance Professor Sharon Bessell discusses the importance of researching how poverty affects women and men differently if policymakers want to effectively address the issue, and tells us why Maltese Shih Tzus make for the best company whilst working from home.

Why did you choose to work at Crawford School?

I have been at Crawford for a long time. I was here before we even were Crawford! For me, it is more why I’ve chosen to stay - and there are three main reasons. I have amazing colleagues - people at Crawford are doing incredible research that really matters in the world, and that makes it a great place to be. And just as importantly, people are nice to each other! The second reason is our students - we are so fortunate to have smart, engaged students from all over the world. I learn much more from them than they do from me. The third reason is that Crawford is a place that encourages innovative research with real world applications - we have the opportunity to pursue our research passions and to try to make a positive difference. Not many work places let you do that.

Can you tell us a bit more about how your research matters today?

My work is in two broad areas. One area is the gendered and generational nature of poverty - so how poverty impacts on women and on men, and on people of different ages. This matters because poverty not only shapes people’s lives, it can destroy them. And that plays out in different ways for boys and girls and for women and men of different ages. To address poverty - and make people’s lives better - we need to understand this and we need to develop responses accordingly.

The second area is social policy for children, particularly children who are in situations that make them vulnerable. I’ve done a lot of work on out-of-home care and on child labour. My research is really about hearing what matters to children through participatory research methods, and assessing whether policies are addressing those issues in ways that are child-centred, and how we can do better. I work on both of these issues in a number of countries - but it never fails to distress me deeply to see how many people are just left in poverty in Australia, and how many children are left vulnerable. We are a wealthy country - it should not be this way!

Can you tell us about one of your funniest/most special moments when teaching a class

I’ve had so many special, moving, wonderful moments while teaching. One that still makes me laugh happened years ago, when I was teaching an intensive course on gender analysis and gender equality. I was very pregnant at the time, and happened to be wearing a fabulous pair of boots - but the heel broke off one part way through the day, so I took them off. We were in a room with a small kitchenette, and as I was talking, I walked over to fill up my drink bottle. One of the students started giggling and said something to the person sitting alongside. Soon everyone was chuckling - I had no idea what was going on. Finally one person said, ‘you do realise that you are talking about gender analysis while barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen!’. It wasn’t exactly the vibe I had been trying to get across.

Can you tell us about a student that has made you particularly proud?

So many of my students make me proud - and especially those who manage to be at ANU, to get a degree, and go on to do good things, against the odds. It is hard to name one person, because there really are so many. If I were to single out a particularly proud moment: In 2012, I taught the Global Social Policy course for the first time - it was a fantastic group of students and there were two very smart young women in that class who both did incredibly well: Clara Siagian and Trang Pham. Both graduated and went on to do great things. Last year, both Clara and Trang started their PhDs here at Crawford - and I’m lucky enough to be supervising them both. I’m very, very proud of them!

Can you give us your top three tips about how to stay positive during the COVID-19 outbreak?

Take your dogs for a walk and give them lots of cuddles. If you don’t have a dog, get a Maltese-Shih Tzu. Really, they are the most gorgeous, loving, funny little dogs. You will always be happy when you are cuddling a Maltese-Shih Tzu, I promise. Go for a run - even a very slow one. It clears the head and tires the body, and you’ll feel so much better. I always run with my daughter, and it’s always a special time - every day! Go and kick a football - I prefer the round ball of the beautiful game! Ideally, do this with your children. Nothing makes the heart sing like striking the perfect ball or tackling your teenage son! So, walking the dogs, running, and kicking a soccer ball. I really should be much fitter (maybe I’m also eating too much chocolate!!)

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