Penny Whetton obtained a Bachelor of Science majoring Physics, followed by an Honours degree and PhD in Meteorology from the University of Melbourne in Australia. After an initial postdoctoral appointment at Monash University, she was employed at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) for more than 25 years. She was a world-leading climatologist and led the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for three assessments, including the fourth assessment, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Sadly, Penny passed away shortly after our interview. She will be remembered as a passionate environmentalist, photographer, artist and an advocate for the transgender community.
How do you break the stereotypes in science?
I was always aware I had gender issues. I remember an experience in my childhood that marks my earliest memories of gender issues – I was only four. It just struck me as something I can never do anything about, and I just repressed it. I then met my wife and that was wonderful and made me repress it even more. We were just the absolutely conventional family with two children, had a career and everything looked perfectly, 100% normal. But as time went by, the gender issues were coming back, and I needed to deal with it.
I eventually told my wife Janet and she was remarkably understanding. There was a process of some years deciding on how to deal with this. There was a feeling that if I were to do anything about this, I had to go through the full gender transition. It did not ever occur to me that there was any other option. There are a lot more options now (gender diverse, non-binary, etc.) that did not seem to be on the table then. I increasingly realised that I had to transition, and that Janet would support me, which was wonderful. I often say that I had to go through gender transition so I can get on with the rest of my life, because otherwise it would be this big thing sitting there and getting in the way of things all the time. There probably is not a day that goes by where I don’t give it a little bit of thought in some way, but that’s declined over the years.
What was your transition process like?
I went through gender transition while I was working at CSIRO. I started off by telling my boss and the Chief that I wanted to go through gender transition. There were not many examples of gender transitions at the time, certainly not in CSIRO, but the Chief was very supportive. The process was suggested by a counsellor and accepted by CSIRO. Although I was on hormone replacement therapy, I would go to work as “Peter” until the final day, when we would send out a letter to the whole division and I was to disappear for a week. The division was then invited to a session with a psychologist to learn about gender transition and people were given the opportunity to ask questions while I was away. After one week, I would come back as “Penny”.
QUICK FIRE ROUND
If you could give one piece of advice to a young aspiring scientist, what would it be?
The importance of making sure you maintain and build good relationships with all the people you need to interact with. I think in all fields, in the end it is the relationship with the people around you that is the most important thing.
What are your interests outside of work?
My passion is that curiosity about the world. I might be reading about a new historical period for a while, then I will be reading about archaeology or natural history. I still have that passion to understand exactly how the natural world works. Another passion is painting. I started painting a few years before I retired and have been doing more of it in the last five years. I love landscape painting and would like to be recognised as a great painter!
What is your advice on how to approach someone who has gone through gender transition?
If you are unsure how to approach someone who has gone through gender transition, approach them anyway. If you find it awkward to talk about the transition, don’t talk about it. Just talk about what you would talk about anyway. The name and pronoun are important to me and it did annoy me when people got it wrong, but I was also willing to be tolerant of people. People started to be better at it over the years and my sensitivity declined over the years too.