Professor Tanya Monro, Professor Emma Johnston and Professor Nalini Joshi spoke at the “Future Of Science – Women” event at the National Press Club on Wednesday 30 March. The event was co-hosted by the Australian Academy of Science. The panellists argued that the culture and institutional practices within the STEMM sector must be transformed if Australia is to meet the challenges of the innovation agenda.
Women & innovation
Professor Tanya Monro began by speaking of her experience as the first female Professor of physics in the 120 year history of University of Adelaide. She discussed research showing that undergraduate men and women alike are more likely to attribute a man’s lack of success to unavoidable external factors such as budget cuts while attributing a woman’s career setbacks to her personal failings. Professor Monro spoke about the importance of questioning widespread assumptions about women’s capabilities and how an academic career should look. She also talked about the motherhood penalty – the negative effects of motherhood on career progression, salary and perceived competence relative to both fathers and women without children. She discussed her experience after having her first baby, at 30 years of age.
“What I found is it actually focused the mind like nothing else I’ve experienced. When I was at work I wanted it to count for something I wanted to be productive, I wanted to achieve, otherwise why on Earth was he in childcare?”
Professor Monro spoke of the need to question the current perception that a research career necessarily means de-prioritising relationships and children: “I personally feel I’m a much better mother and wife because of my love and passion for what I do.”
Having worked at the interface of industry and university research, Professor Monro showed that women have a central place in the innovation agenda.
The barriers women face in STEMM research are multiplied when it comes to the area of innovation. Entrepreneurship demands a culture of risk-taking, and this often happens at an age where women “have to make difficult decisions about their career pathways.”
Professor Monro spoke of the need for a greater diversity of female leaders, drawing attention to the barriers that exclude many women from success in science careers. In particular, the science culture that consistently excludes a diverse range of talented and hard-working women, by enabling success for those with the most “determination and bloody-mindedness.” She suggested that tackling these questions has implications well beyond women and girls, fostering diversity more broadly.
Risk and “choices”
Professor Johnston is a marine ecologist, who began by sharing a personal story, both as a scientist and as the daughter of scientists. Only her father was able to progress in his science career, while her mother had to make the choice to leave science in order to have a family. Professor Johnston recognises the systemic disadvantages that cut beyond gender, including also race, sexuality and disability.
Describing her own career choices, Professor Johnston illustrated what she called “the fault points in our infamous leaky pipeline,” including the disadvantages faced by early career researchers who are less mobile, particularly if they need to take maternity leave. She also noted that academics such as herself who focus on teaching and pastoral care, are penalised in the current system that privileges publications and the pursuit of research grants. Professor Johnston also notes that researchers who do not aggressively promote themselves as first authors and in high-profile journals, usually women, are also left behind. These “choices” are structured by institutions; they are “choices that can break your route to seniority in STEM professions.”
“Science is an empirical profession, we try really hard to remove bias from our experiments and our observations… Regrettably, we are very poor at turning the lens back on ourselves and recognising unconscious bias within our own systems.”
Professor Johnston discussed the institutional support that enabled her career, including institutionally-funded maternity leave, return carers’ grants, encouraging mentors, and grant-allocation panels that overlooked reviewers’ comments when they didn’t take into account research outcomes relative to opportunity. She highlighted several areas where “simple regulatory changes” could make a substantial difference. For example, increasing early career job security, parental care that is available to both parents, flexibility in the workplace, enabling career breaks with guaranteed re-entry, anonymous grant and journal submissions, and transparent allocation of teaching and administrative is responsibilities.
While Professor Johnston acknowledged that her career shows that it is clearly possible to succeed in science without following the traditional pathways, there are too few guarantees that other women might find the same opportunities. “I had to take a lot of risks, and we’ve got to reduce those risks for the rest of the women, we cannot afford to leave it up to that much chance.”
Professor Joshi talked about her experience as the first woman ever appointed professor of mathematics at the University of Sydney. She suggests that Australia is currently throwing away “the opportunity to harness that huge intelligence, the prodigious drive and the high level education of the females already in the research workforce.” This is due to organisational cultures that continue to exclude women, sexual minorities and ethnic minorities.
“I want to convince you that Australia has to pursue change because the benefits go well beyond gender, beyond sexual identity or preference, race or ethnicity, and that change will make our society become more creative, abundant, inventive and innovative.”
Professor Joshi spoke about the “measured pathway ahead of us,” which she identifies is the SAGE Pilot of Athena SWAN, our evaluation and accreditation program that seeks reflection and change from individuals and institutions.
“I think the solution has been staring at us in the face from the UK for the past 10 years, and it’s called the Athena SWAN program.”
Professor Joshi outlined the Athena SWAN process towards obtaining a Bronze Institutional Award: nuanced data analysis, identification of problem areas, and development of an action plan to address gender equity issues or other other gaps in diversity and inclusion. Developing a meaningful action plan will require institutions to reflect on “behaviour, communication and culture in a way that they may never have considered before.”
She highlighted how this process demands in-depth study of institutional problems and the challenges facing women in STEMM. Focusing on the example of promotions, the application for an Athena SWAN Bronze Institutional Award requires that institutions not only to know how many women have been promoted, but also to assess how many women are eligible for promotion, how long women are waiting before applying for promotions, and what institutional factors may shape these outcomes.
Evaluations in the UK have shown that Athena SWAN success is associated with outcomes that improve working life for everyone, regardless of gender or sexuality. Professor Joshi said:
“I am over the moon that the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Technological Sciences and Engineering Academy have joined together to mount a pilot of the Athena SWAN program as part of the Science in Australia Gender Equity or SAGE initiative…
“I am incredibly pleased to see this happen in Australia, not just because I’m a woman but because I am fond of our country. We produce so many talented people that we lose and so many great ideas that go elsewhere. Imagine if we could encourage and keep these talented people. Imagine these ideas and people doubling our Nobel Prizes. Imagine being in a room full of female mathematics professors.”
Journey to success
The final question and answer session touched on the pervasive problems associated with unconscious bias and the value of anonymous peer review in journal article and grant submissions. The panellists also championed the importance of cultural change on a wide scale, including among teachers, parents and mentors, to better encourage girls and young women in technology. The panellists saw a critical mass of women in working environments and in decision-making bodies, as one way to reduce the effects of women being isolated, overlooked and singled out for their gender. They also identified targets and quotas as a critical means to change the cultural perception of success and merit in science.
Shannon Pace from Lanyon High School in the ACT put forward one of the final questions:
“Hi, my question for the panel is did you have a time when you were really challenged by something to the point where you didn’t think you could succeed and how did you get through that problem?”
All three scientists spoke of their experiences in overcoming challenges and self-doubt. Professor Monro gave a poignant response: “Whenever you look at any role model, whether it is in science, male or female, you might think you see this story and journey of success. What you don’t see is every single failure that they have picked themselves up from and dusted themselves off from.”
You can watch the Future of Science – Women panel on the ABC website.
Photo Credits: SAGE (Photo 1 & 4) and National Press Club (Photo 2, 3, 5, 6).