Gender Equity is Everyone’s Concern: Professor Brian Schmidt

Professor Brian Schmidt AC FAA FRS, Vice-Chancellor, Australian National University, Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, and Nobel Laureate Professor Schmidt served as SAGE Founding Co-Chair (alongside Professor Joshi) from 2014 to 2015.  In this interview, Professor Schmidt talks about his commitment to gender equity in science and academia and why it is both personally and professionally important to him.

Athena SWAN Charter in Australia

Since my arrival in Australia almost 21 years ago, I’ve seen Australia make quite a bit of effort on gender equity. But we’ve kind of stalled for the last 10 years. What we need to think about are ways to improve gender equity within our disciplines and within academia.

Athena SWAN, of all the programs I’ve seen around the world, is the program that seems to be having the biggest effect. It’s really getting universities and research organisations to think about the problems and measure them, to come up with ways to fix those problems and then act upon those problems. And then re-measure and see how we’ve done. So from my perspective, it’s the thing that I think has the best chance of making meaningful change in our sector.

Securing the best talent to solve big challenges

I see technology, and science that underpins that technology, as being really the big game changer for Australia in the future. If we do it well, we’re going to remain a prosperous nation. If we do it poorly, we are going to be less prosperous. We have a lot of talent across Australia and science and technology needs some of the brightest minds that Australia has to offer. All the evidence is that that’s half the men and half the women. And systematically, when we look at a University and we see that only 20% of our senior professors, for example, are women, you know you’re throwing away a lot of valuable talent. And that valuable talent is stuff we simply cannot afford to lose.

A competitive advantage

From my perspective at ANU my hope is by engaging more effectively with women that I’m going to actually have an advantage. An advantage over people around the world, and an advantage here in Australia of attracting the best talent. That’s what Universities are all about it’s about attracting great talent and about resourcing it to do great things. And if I have the advantage of getting an extra segment of the population, women, then that’s going to be great for my institution.

A personal perspective

I guess I’ve spent most of my life working with men and women, more men than women. My own Nobel Prize winning team had no women on it at all. It reflected the generation of astronomers that I grew up with.

I had a very strong mother who taught me how valuable female contributions can be and that I don’t want to see those contributions excluded. So, to me, it’s almost a human rights aspect.

It’s something I feel very strongly that if we’re going to have a society that I want to live in, one that is equal, then I need to help make the change. To me, it’s a fundamental part of living in a society that I want to be part of.

Together we can make a difference

One of the common misconceptions about dealing with gender equity is that it’s a female problem. In my field which is 70% male, the lack of women in it is a problem for the whole discipline. So it’s a problem that men as well as women need to embrace.

So in the Athena SWAN program and, for example, Male Champions of Change and other great initiatives we have in Australia, the role that men are going to be playing in trying to fix the problem is not to be understated.

And so I’m hoping to be joined by males and females in the Athena SWAN program as it rolls out here in Australia.