Supporting Women in Science Leadership: Professor Doug Hilton

Professor Douglas Hilton, FAA, FTSE, FAHMS is Director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) and a member of the SAGE Steering Committee. 

Professor Doug Hilton is excited about the SAGE Pilot of Athena Swan because it presents an opportunity for the research and science sector to address the problem of gender equity in a collaborative manner.  Doug feels that too often the solutions to gender equity occur in single institutions. With the SAGE Pilot, institutions can learn from each other, while also drawing on a national framework to collectively address the problem of gender equity.

In this interview, Doug talks about his concerns that gender inequity leads to a waste of productivity and training within the science sector.

Doug says that while women are often well represented in PhD studies and postdoctoral roles in many STEMM fields, women nevertheless tend to drop out of the system at the leadership level. Doug says that striving to keep the best scientists in the country in senior roles increases the opportunity to make important scientific discoveries.

If we disenfranchise half of our population, then I think we live in a society that’s not as decent as it should be.

Bias against women in science

Doug believes there are three significant factors contributing to gender inequality in science.

  1. Scientists’ career defining years and childbearing years often coincide, and the decision to start a family often makes a huge impact on research productivity.
  2. The existence of gender bias against women, whether unconscious or otherwise, has a negative impact across the STEMM sector.
  3. The tendency for young women to underestimate their own abilities and lack the confidence to push themselves into leadership roles is something Doug perceives to be an issue that requires institutional solutions.

As Director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Doug says he has witnessed a large number of talented women starting their careers at the Institute only to be subsequently squeezed out of their STEMM careers.

The idea that some of those women will drop out of leadership in science unnecessarily is a real tragedy.

Supporting women in science leadership

From both an institutional viewpoint and a personal viewpoint, Doug is keen to see everybody who starts a career at the Institute, and more broadly at the national level, to have equal opportunity to fulfill their scientific capacity and research aspirations.

Doug’s wish for the future in biological sciences is to see the same number of women entering the system staying on into leadership positions as laboratory heads and professors. Doug believes this will be the real measure of any science or gender equity program.