Diversity Leads to Innovation: Interview with Professor Nalini Joshi

Professor Nalini Joshi, FAA FRSN, co-Chair of the SAGE Steering Committee,  Academy Council member and Georgina Sweet Australian Laureate Fellow.

In this interview with Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE), Professor Nalini Joshi, Co-Chair of SAGE, talks about the potential of the SAGE Pilot to help change the culture that currently leads to poor retention of women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM). Nalini says:

The mechanism of SAGE is primarily to initiate local reflection and from the results of the local reflection, create action that will actually change the situation there.

Nalini believes that local reflection is very important in dealing with gender equity. The SAGE Pilot is testing Athena SWAN, a rigorous methodology for assessing gender outcomes in STEMM. This requires institutions to consider unique local factors relevant to their history and organisation type. Organisations are required to produce and analyse employee data by gender, identify gaps in their workforce and create an action plan to address those gaps.  Nalini believes the SAGE Pilot can bring about an increase in gender parity at senior levels in scientific research. She says:

IQ distribution is not dependent on gender. You need to keep the best talent you can.  A diversity of thinking skills and a diversity of creative ideas is what leads to innovation.

As Nalini explains, the STEMM disciplines are already producing talented scientists at the junior end of the career spectrum. By supporting this talent to reach their peak capacity, these people will become our pioneers, our creative thinkers and our future Nobel prize winners.

Nalini says that many people believe the loss of talent in STEMM is a social problem (such as the myth that women aren’t interested in STEMM), however the data tell a different story. Women are studying and undertaking PhDs in STEMM subjects at similar rates to men in most STEMM fields. Women are then moving into academic research careers. Yet from the mid-career (especially the postdoc phase) to the senior levels, there is a steep decline in the number of women reaching leadership roles.

The scientific evidence indicates the problem is not social, but rather an issue of workplace culture.

In 2001, Nalini became the first woman to be appointed as a professor of mathematical sciences at the University of Sydney. She remained the only woman in this role for 14 years. She likes to joke that “the numbers doubled” in July 2015 when one other woman was appointed as a professor in the same department. Nalini muses that this low promotion of senior women professors in her field may not be directly attributable to gender bias, however, until the data can be thoroughly analysed through the SAGE Pilot, her institution cannot be confident that institutional barriers and unconscious biases are not playing a role in keeping women from realising their full potential.

We're already producing women of great talent. If we can keep them - then the sky's the limit - Professor Nalini Joshi, SAGE Co-Chair
We’re already producing women of great talent. If we can keep them – then the sky’s the limit – Professor Nalini Joshi, SAGE Co-Chair

Visit our SAGE Pilot page to learn more about how your institution can transform outcomes for women and underrepresented groups in STEMM, as well as improving scientific culture for all.