Women in STEMM Q&A

Renowned ABC show Q&A put politics aside for a wonderful and well-received episode on science, with three women in STEMM taking centre stage: Professor Emma Johnston (marine ecologist and presenter of Coast Australia); Dr Tamara Davis (dark matter and energy cosmologist); and Upulie Divisekera (molecular biologist and co-founder of Real Science). They were joined by Dr Alan Finkel (Australia’s chief scientist and former President of ATSE) and Professor Brian Greene (world renowned physicist and string theorist).

One audience member asked the panel to comment on the dominance of men in science careers post-PhD and whether there is “something that females find abhorrent in the current scientific review process.” Divisekera notes that women make up around 50% of undergraduate students in STEMM, but the gender breakdown comes down to 17% at senior roles due to subtle biases experienced throughout scientific careers.

Professor Johnston similarly references that she is one among the 17% of women STEMM professors in Australia; a fact that has remained largely unchanged for over five decades, with some science areas being worse off in recent years.  Professor Johnston discusses SAGE as one solution, specifically referencing the partnership between the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering in addressing structural and cultural problems in science institutions that affect gender equity and other forms of diversity.

Structural changes

Professor Johnson does not share the optimism of some of the other panellists who say they have not personally witnessed gender inequities. Professor Johnston notes the “trickle down” effect of equity is not borne out by the scientific evidence. She says: “We know that there are major structural things that need to change about the way we’ve created the science careers,” especially the career barriers faced by women students and early-to-mid-career researchers. Scientists are expected to move every couple of years to boost their academic credentials and better secure a senior position, which disadvantages women in particular.

“That’s a recipe for knocking out any woman who wants to have children and who has made it through to that level and that’s a key point at which we need to restructure and envisage ways of enabling women to go out and have their children, have a secure job, have maternity leave and also enable fathers to take paternity leave so that that is a more shared option and everyone’s happier, of course.”

Professor Johnston also discusses cultural problems that reinforce one dominant way to be a scientist (namely, older, White men). Cultural stereotypes lead to stereotype threat, a physiological response to the stigma of being a woman in science, which affects women’s confidence and performance, subsequently pushing them out of science. “So someone like me will be less confident about my capacity to do science because I am one of only 17% of professors in Australia who are women. That’s something that hasn’t changed since the 1960s and, indeed, some people think we’re going backwards.” Professor Johnston continues:

The good news is the Australian Academy of Science, the Australian Technological Societies, all of the universities, they’re signing on to a whole suite of policies and changes that are constructive, addressing both the structural and the cultural problems that we face to increase not only gender equity but also other forms of diversity within science.

Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, added that he perceives progress is being made and that the SAGE Pilot will boost outcomes:

“And, yes, the Athena SWAN program that’s being put forward will make a difference.”

Future of science

Throughout the program, the women experts and audience members showcased the important contributions that women make to science research and innovation. One intrepid audience member in particular represented the future potential of women in STEMM. Demonstrating a flair for maths, young Jacinta, seen in the excerpt below, gives an impressive recitation of Pi to 88 figures.

The show covered a complex range of scientific topics, demonstrating the significant contribution women in STEMM make to issues of national and international importance. Dr Davis discussed the impact of the recent discovery of gravitational waves. Professor Emma Johnston discussed the effects of climate change, noting global temperatures today being higher than the pre-industrial era, subsequently affecting everything from bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, to reshaping our coastline (50% of Sydney coast is completely constructed as a result of environmental changes). Professor Johnston said that even the mating patterns of sea turtles and other creatures are being compromised due to ecological pressures.

The panellists later discussed the ethics of creating artificial intelligence (AI) that supports human progress without negatively impacting on the livelihood and safety of humans. Divisekera says: “We have the power and we have the ability to construct the AI that we want to see and we have to think about how we want our society to look in the future and what sort of ethical framework that we want to introduce to develop the artificial intelligence.” Divisekera and Johnston spoke about the need for STEMM researchers to collaborate with scientists in other areas, especially the social sciences, to address pivotal scientific challenges such as AI and climate change.

Divisekera further advocated the importance of funding “pure research” (that is, studies that address basic scientific principles and theories, rather than a specific known problem). Other panellists also noted that funding cuts to the CSIRO, Australia’s peak scientific research organisation, will be detrimental to Australia’s future. Professor Johnston later added:

Clever governments fund research that takes a lot of different approaches and clever governments do basic research and applied research… We use science to help understand our world. Often it might be made into a gadget that we can sell. Sometimes it’s made into a way of preventing disasters. It’s always useful and you just never know when.

A full transcript of the episode is found on the Q&A website.

You can hear more from Professor Johnston when she joins SAGE Co-Chair Professor Nalini Joshi and fellow SAGE sponsor, Professor Tanya Monro, at the National Press Club on Wednesday, 30 March 2015. These eminent STEMM leaders will discuss the barriers to women’s participation in science and how they differ from those in other sectors.  ‘The Future of Science: Women’ will explore strategies to overcome these barriers within the current political context and what it means for the future of Australian science if they aren’t addressed.