Boost to gender equity in science

By Brian Schmidt AC, HonDSc ’11
14 October 2015

Australian science continues to lose talented women scientists for more subtle reasons.

When I arrived at an Australian university from the US in the early 1990s, it felt like the clock had been turned back when it came to gender equity.

Overt sexism still occurred in the workplace. There were almost no senior women academics and surprisingly few female graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

Between my arrival in Australia and the mid-2000s, there was clear improvement. Female participation at universities, including science, rose sharply, such that females have been the majority of university degree recipients for some time.

However, the rapid progress towards gender equity in universities has now slowed to a snail's pace - a phenomenon shared by most Western nations.

Areas such as mathematics, engineering and physical sciences still lag with low numbers of incoming female students.

At the moment, one-fifth of senior academic positions in the sciences are held by women and it's clear unconscious biases against women continue.

Take for example the double-blind study that showed given identical information on an applicant's curriculum vitae, assessors, both men and women systematically preferred the applications with male names.

Academia is competitive. As in most competitive environments, the rules of survival of the fittest apply and modern research organisations reflect this competitive process.

But who survives? The best and brightest? No, in science, it's those people who are able to move around the world, without certainty, from short-term contract to short-term contract until they find a permanent position.

In the end, research misses out with this selection process throwing out talent that our profession can ill afford to lose.

Australia has come a long way but is this story of wasted talent really so different to the days when women were actively excluded from science?

Brilliant radio astronomer Ruby Payne-Scott was an Australian pioneer who help establish her field. But before she was 40, she was forced to retire early from the job she loved at the CSIR (now CSIRO) when she fell pregnant and could no longer hide her marriage.

In the 1950s, women in the public service were required to resign when they married.

This story still stuns me today. It bothers me to think that my field, astronomy, was robbed of such a talent in the middle of her career and at the height of her contribution.

While this sexist law no longer exists, Australian science continues to lose talented women scientists for more subtle reasons.

In 2013, I was a member of council of the Australian Academy of Science and, for the first time in decades, we managed not to elect a single woman to our fellowship.

There was no maliciousness or overt sexism to the process, just lots of little things that added up to a result which was blatantly unacceptable to the broad majority of the academy.

This alarm bell triggered the academy's council to not just look internally at its own processes but to think more broadly how it could actively promote issues of gender equity throughout the science and research sector.

As a result, a successful program in British universities - Athena Swan - will be brought to Australia through the Science in Australia Gender Equity pilot scheme. This scheme will be initially rolled out in more than half of Australia's universities and a number of other scientific research organisations, including the CSIRO.

Far from the usual box-ticking exercise, the program is a sophisticated framework. The 32 pilot institutions will confront their own gender-equity issues by gathering comprehensive data, setting policies to address gender-inequity issues at their institutions and then evaluating the success of these policies.

While not a panacea, Athena Swan has been evaluated and found to be a very effective agent for promoting improvements in gender equity across Britain.

If this program has the desired effect, perhaps one day future generations won't even think twice when women and men are represented equally at the most senior levels of science.

Professor Brian Schmidt AC is Distinguished Professor and astrophysicist at the ANU Mount Stromlo Observatory. He is the incoming ANU Vice-Chancellor.

This article was first published by Fairfax Media on 16 September 2015.