Australia Needs Women in Science Leadership

In September 2015, the SAGE Pilot was launched in Parliament House, Canberra. The event was attended by Ministers, representatives from research funding and policy sectors, and representatives from the 32 universities and research institutions participating in the SAGE Pilot. The event included a panel discussion on why Australia needs women in science leadership. Below is a transcript of the discussion and audience questions.

Panel Members

Professor Nalini Joshi FAA FRSN, SAGE Committee Co-Chair, University of Sydney, Former Australian Academy Council Member and Georgina Sweet Australian Laureate Fellow

Dr Maggie Evans-Galea, SAGE Committee Member, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, Co-Founder Women in Science Australia

Professor Sharon Bell, SAGE Committee Member, Deputy Vice Chancellor, Charles Darwin University


Ms Lyndal Curtis, Canberra Bureau Chief, Sky News


Lyndal: Sharon, I’ll start with you.  Why is the issue of women in science leadership important?

SAGE launch Professor Sharon BellSharon: As a number of speakers have already said, we’ve known for a long time, almost 30 years, that we have a particular pattern of participation in science.  High levels of participation in some levels at the under-graduate level, high levels of participation going through to PhD in some disciplines, low levels in others but then a significant falling off of women after the PhD.  This pattern has been mapped since the 1970s.  The reasons behind that have been mapped.  It is critical now for two reasons.  One is because we are increasingly recognising the link between the failure of our workforce in terms of addressing gender segregation and that then impacts on innovation and that impacts on our economy and science innovation is absolutely critical.

Lyndal: Maggie, lots of different sectors have been addressing gender equity over the last 30 years.  What’s unique about science, what is it about science that hasn’t made some of the inroads other sectors have?

Dr Maggie Evans-Galea
Dr Maggie Evans-Galea

Maggie: I think what is unique to science is that while we do have large participation, there is a big squeeze at the early-to-mid-career phase.  And science is very hard to do from home.  For example if you work with animal models or cell models and it’s a collaborative endeavour, then it is actually really tough to have a highly flexible work environment.  And so we really need to provide greater support at that stage to help train and retain our women in science.

Lyndal: Is part of that reason too that research can go over years and years and taking a break in middle of research can impact?

Maggie: Absolutely.  The impact of a career disruption to have a child, or health reasons, or even if a dad wants to go on paternity leave – it can really have a significant impact on progression and that’s why initiatives, such as those the Walter & Eliza Hall Institute has introduced, where they have a research assistant while someone is on leave to actually keep the work ticking over is so valuable because it keeps it going.

Lyndal: Nalini, you were the first woman appointed to the position of Professor of Mathematics in your university and for 14 years, the only woman in your Department.  Two questions, how daunting was that at the start and have you seen things change in a good way over that time?

Professor Nalini Joshi
Professor Nalini Joshi

Nalini: I’ve been the single woman in the room for most rooms in my life.  I think it’s fair to say that I didn’t even notice anymore that I was the single woman in the room all of those years.  But there is a kind of an underlying issue that I wanted to tease out.  There are subliminal messages to all the actions that are undertaken by organisations and individuals and I’ve encountered most of them.  As far as I can tell, the model I have in my head is that research and academic organisational culture is really based on that which you might find in a feudal monastery.  Information is power and it’s very tightly held.  Survival depends on competition and competition can get extreme.  And those two things lead to behavioural patterns that are worth thinking about and influence the gate-keeping that goes on.  When I first arrived at the University of Sydney as a Professor, one of the most common questions I was asked was, “are you a real Professor?”  That is, are you a professor of a disciplined area, a named Professor in other words, or were you just promoted up here due to maybe some community service.  So I had to explain that I was a Professor of Applied Mathematics.  I’m happy to report that in July, we doubled our numbers of female professors in mathematics.

Lyndal: We’ll look a little bit now about what can be done in a positive way.  Sharon, how can the SAGE pilot address gender equity and how is it different to other gender equity programs?

L-R: Lyndal, Nalini, Sharon & Maggie in conversation
L-R: Lyndal, Nalini, Sharon & Maggie

Sharon: When we produced the FAST report on women in science in Australia in 2009, the most frequent question that was put to me was by senior CEOs, Institute Directors and Vice-Chancellors was “just tell me what to do”.  SAGE gives us a framework, it gives us a Charter, a set of principles, and a systematic way of developing and analysing an evidence-base in order to ensure that the policies and processes that are put in place are those that are needed in the particular institutional context.

Lyndal: How important is it, when getting scientific institutions on board, that it has an evidence base?

Sharon: Absolutely critical.  Scientists love data.  And if you can present a data-driven argument, then that will have traction.  We are also very lucky in Australia because we have had a really excellent, equity framework.  A fair chance for all gave us an extraordinary set of goals from the 1990s and one of those was women in non-traditional disciplines.  This was an inspired goals for us to achieve because it didn’t represent simply 50% of the population.  It was about non-traditional disciplines and women in post-graduate studies.

Lyndal: Maggie, what sort of pressure might it place on the institutes that have signed up to realise that they are going to have to produce evidence and be measured against outcomes?

Maggie: I think it places a very positive pressure and I think the more that the word gets out about the positive impact of SAGE – because for a lot of women in the UK where it’s been going for 10 years, they report they are much happier and feel more supported, they’re progressing in their careers, they get better advice for promotion and things like that. That impact is hard to measure but the word does get out and I think this will help institutions to get on board.

Lyndal: What sort of things will this program help institutions to do to improve gender equity?

Maggie: So many great ways because you need to address metrics.  The way we would measure a successful scientist we can look at the ways we are doing that.  Are we doing it correctly?  We can dig down – who is doing all the Committee service? Who’s doing all of the teaching? Who are our part-timers? And it allows them to look at that over time and develop policies to try and support those people and share the workload more effectively. We can have unconscious-bias training.  I could go on and on.  There are so many great ideas that are out there that within the context of an organisation could be highly effective.

Lyndal: Nalini, if this program is successful, how will it help improve science in Australia?

Nalini: Imagine if we doubled the number of Nobel Prize winners in Australia just by bringing and keeping those people of talent.  IQ is not distributed by gender across the human population. Imagine what we could do with that extra power and talent and enthusiasm and innovative ability.

Lyndal: Is it important Maggie, to demonstrate that this is not just a program about improving the lives of women scientists or Indigenous scientists, but it might help some men along the way as well.

Hon Karen Andrews MP was one of the speakers at the SAGE Launch
Hon Karen Andrews MP was one of the speakers at the SAGE Launch

Maggie: Absolutely. I encourage every male in the room to become a male champion of change who comes out of the closet.  SAGE allows you to do this.  A lot of men feel really strongly about gender equity – they have daughters and grand-daughters.  They’re young dads and they want to go on paternity leave so it’s one of those things where they want work/life balance as well.  We do have a cultural issue where we have a macho boy’s club aspect to it which can really stigmatise a young dad who wants to go to the school concert with his child.

Lyndal: Sharon, there’s often a great difference between an institution at a high level signing up to a program like this and the message getting down to where some of the cultural change might have to happen within the individual parts of that institution.  What do you say to people who might not see the need for change and think women should perhaps just try a bit harder?

Sharon: The first thing I would say is that women are already trying much harder than many of their male colleagues. If you talk about women leaning in, women are leaning in, they show no less passion and commitment. That’s what our research shows.  They’re also doing more leaning in, in terms of the domestic and caring duties that they’re actually carrying while they are simultaneously becoming great scientists, many of them. So I think it’s really important, again as Maggie said, to recognise that there are cultural issues that are micro-elements of organisational cultures which, in very subtle ways, advantage men and disadvantage women and we need to have that identified and addressed at every single level of the organisation.  Having said that, the research also tells us that buy-in and championing by the most senior leaders, is absolutely critical.

Lyndal: Nalini, what does success look like?

Nalini: A thousand women professors of mathematical sciences.  That would be fantastic.  But at least equal numbers across the board.

Lyndal: And having active participation from men, and having them take advantage of some of the benefits Maggie talked about.

Nalini: I think that will come naturally actually.  What we are talking about is having greater clarity of communication, cultural change that is actually having an impact, not just on women, but on men and all minority groups. It can only be good for all the organisations that are involved in scientific research, and even beyond that.

Questions from the Audience

Professor Laura Poole-Warren
Professor Laura Poole-Warren

Professor Laura Poole-Warren, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research Training), University of New South Wales: I’m actually really interested in the critical mass aspects of getting women into science and engineering and when you look at the representation at professorial level, it’s actually fairly similar across science, engineering – it’s actually very similar when you look at the humanities.  Whereas, the pipeline is actually very different.  Science as we know is 50/50, humanities is a lot higher, engineering is way down at 20% and yet we’re pretty much the same at professorial level.  It sort of suggests that you have a power culture going on and there are only a certain number of seats around the table and women have to compete for those seats. Can you comment on that critical mass aspect of getting women into science?

Maggie: I think it’s really interesting that you raise that point because the difference between disciplines, even within the same university that has the same policies and procedures in place, the same gender equity committees, the same control factors that still have a very different outcome. So we really need to think about the internal culture and that encourages us to dig deep at departmental levels as well and to look at discipline specific issues and I think that’s something that’s a little more complex than that the initial pilot phase study may do but it’s certainly something that will come.

Sharon: Our recent research was looking at two fields – biological sciences and chemical related industries – very significant differences just between those two fields, both with large numbers of under-graduate female students. What that research tells us is that there’s not a whole-of-science solution to the issue and I think that’s what Maggie is saying.  We need to have a more nuanced approach.

Nalini:  I think it’s very important to tease this out further no matter what area you might be in.  I think there are processes that are being followed that might have led to this very small fraction at the top, no matter what the field you looked at.  The processes are what you need to tease out and check.  People will often say this is a societal problem, we can’t do anything about it.  And that’s complete crap.  Just look at the numbers.

Associate Professor Diana Magliano
Associate Professor Diana Magliano

Associate Professor Diana Magliano, Head, Diabetes and Population Health, Baker IDI: Can we get to where we want to go, in a meaningful, long-lasting way without positive discrimination?

Sharon: I think this is a very important question and I can’t address it nearly as well as Elizabeth Broderick did at her Press Club discussion the week before last. I think that we do need to be mindful, we need to monitor, we need to evaluate and we do need to look at where we are not gaining traction that we’re thinking much more seriously about targets and quotas.  We know that these have worked in intractable situations elsewhere in the world and I think we need to keep an open mind. I think it also goes hand-in-hand with the research that is currently emerging around notions of meritocracy. Women, by and large, often reject the notion of quotas and targets because they really honestly believe that we work in meritocratic systems. But the evidence is that those also are very gender-biased systems so we need to sometimes break through.  I think we should be looking at five or ten years down the track, of Athena SWAN and say “are we gaining traction and if not, what we need to do?”

Maggie: Because who currently defines merit?  It’s a leadership team made up largely of men.

Professor Cobie Rudd
Professor Cobie Rudd

Professor Cobie Rudd, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Strategic Partnerships) and Vice-President, Edith Cowan UniversityHow do you think the participating institutes in the Athena SWAN pilot will have a practical and tangible impact on the pipeline from primary and secondary schools in respect to more girls and young women into STEM?

Nalini: Let me start by saying that in the natural and physical sciences, there’s already close to 60% of women in the student population.  So there’s already a lot of interest and a big pipeline coming through. In terms of what more impact that program might have, I can only talk about role-models at the moment I think. That’s going to be a major factor.  In fact, I’ve got a group of very enthusiastic high-school students coming to visit me tomorrow who want to know more about mathematics – which is wonderful.

Maggie: If you ask a Grade 7 child to draw a scientist, they will draw a balding, white male in a lab coat with glasses.  So after they’ve had a visit from a woman in science, that drawing shifts.  I think it’s very important that they see women in science, not just research, but all parts of science, as successful and as the norm.

Lyndal: The figures are actually 50/50 which shows the universities do a good job of attracting women into studying science.

Maggie: It does depend on the discipline though. It’s very discipline specific. A lot of females want to study biology, the nurturing kind of philosophy behind it perhaps but the hard-core math and enabling sciences tend to struggle.

Nalini: Even in mathematics it’s close to 40%.

Ms Katrina Jackson
Ms Katrina Jackson

Ms Katrina Jackson, Chief Executive Officer, Science & Technology Australia: You only have to look around the room to see the excitement that this project has created in the scientific community and massive congratulations from all the STA members’ right around the country to everyone involved and we are very much in support.  There is so much build up to this, there is so much excitement, I’m wondering if you might be thinking about the other end of the coin – is there a risk that people’s expectations are really high and people are really hopeful. As it’s already been outlined, people have been working for three decades to try and get some change. You can’t do it all – surely you need some help from outside and what do you do if it isn’t working as well as you want.  What do you want us to do to help?

Sharon: I think, Katrina, that this is one of the areas where the framework is really helpful and I think working from the evidence-base because as soon as you work from the evidence-base you can actually find those initiatives that you can put in place in the short-term and change somethings quite dramatically quite quickly.  That doesn’t mean that there aren’t intractable issues, it is a wicked problem.  There are intractable issues that may well take quite some time to actually address, but I think we can actually seize the moment and gain the momentum and the fact that Athena SWAN requires such collective “buy-in” at the institutional level virtually guarantees that that momentum will be sound.

Nalini: I think there’s a longer term structure to think about.  Beyond the Pilot, we hope to have a longer-term not-for-profit type structure that will look after the SAGE program and there we will need plenty of investors

Lyndal: Do the organisations in the Pilot then become the champions of the program for the future?

Maggie: Absolutely. You would hope that they are out there “we are the number one ranked gender equity supporters, women in science at our institute want to work here”. I think that’s something that a grass-roots swell will also make happen and encourage.

Sharon: We can be confident that our Vice-Chancellors and our Institute Directors will all want a Gold Medal.  They will want to be at the top of the ranking.
SAGE Launch Australia Needs Women in Science Leadership