Tag Archives: Women in STEMM

science and innovation

Crossing the cultural divide

Australia’s future health and economy is a vibrant, interactive ecosystem with science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) at its core. STEM is central – and essential – to Australia’s ongoing success in the next 50 years. Australia is considered an incredible place to do cutting-edge research, pursue blue-sky ideas and commercialise innovative products. Pioneering discoveries fuel the innovation process. Students cannot wait to enrol in science and maths. Policies are developed using peer-reviewed evidence and broad consultation. Aspirational goals are backed by practical solutions and half of our STEM leaders are women – it’s the norm.

Sounds good doesn’t it?

To excel in science and innovation, however, Australia needs a major culture shift. We can all ‘talk the talk’, but as OECD figures demonstrate, we cannot ‘walk the walk’. Australia rates lowest compared to other OECD countries when it comes to business-research collaborations – not just large businesses, but small to medium-sized enterprises as well.

Academia blames industry. Industry blames academia. Everyone blames the government. It’s time to turn the pointing finger into a welcoming handshake and engage across sectors to actually make innovation happen.

Literally thousands of researchers in this country want to see our academic and industry leaders reach across the divide and make change happen. With every decision made, their future is impacted.

Paradigm-shifting science and innovation takes time and requires a diverse workforce of highly-skilled researchers and professionals that specialise in these fields.

The lack of a skilled workforce and poor collaboration are significant barriers to innovation. As part of the National Innovation and Science Agenda, the industry engagement and impact assessment aims to incentivise greater collaboration between industry and academia by examining how universities are translating their research into social and economic benefits.

Australian academic institutions have begun to break down silos within their own research organisations with some success. In medical research for example, the breadth and scale of interdisciplinary collaborative projects has expanded exponentially – spanning international borders, requiring a range of skills and expertise, terabytes of data, and years of research.

Research teams have become small companies with synergistic subsidiaries – diagnostic, basic, translational and clinical teams – working toward a common goal.

Yet their engagement with industry is low. Industry struggles to navigate the ever-changing complex leadership structures in higher education and research. When you speak one-on-one with researchers and industry leaders, however, they seem almost desperate to cross the divide and connect! It’s a detrimental dichotomy.

How can we harness the full potential of our research workforce?

We can energise innovation by fostering a culture that values basic research as well as translation of discoveries to product, practice and policy. A culture that opens the ivory tower and is not so sceptical of industry-academia engagement. That responds to failure with resilience and determination rather than deflating, harsh judgement. That sees the potential of our young researchers.

We need to lose the tall poppy syndrome and openly celebrate the success and achievement of others. We must hold ourselves to higher standards and in particular, women must be equally recognised and rewarded for their leadership.

As a nation, we must ensure we are prepared and resourced for the challenges ahead. Not only do we need the best equipment and technologies, but we also need a readily adaptable workforce that is highly-skilled to address these issues.

To facilitate a culture shift and increase engagement with business and industry, we need to provide researchers the skills and know-how, as well as opportunities to hone these skills. Young researchers are ready to engage and hungry to learn; and they must be encouraged to do so without penalty.

They then need to be connected with industry leaders to identify the qualities and expertise they need to strengthen, and to extend their network.

We can change this now. The solution is not expensive. It is simply about letting down our guard and providing real opportunities to meet, to connect, to network, to exchange ideas and expertise – and to share that welcoming handshake.

Dr Marguerite Evans-Galea

Executive Director, Industry Mentoring Network in STEM, Australian Academy of Technological Science and Engineering, Melbourne

CEO and Co-founder, Women in STEMM Australia

Read next: Professor David Lloyd, Vice Chancellor of the University of South Australia, believes university and industry have a shared purpose.

Spread the word: Help Australia become a collaborative nation! Share this piece on science and innovation using the social media buttons below.

More Thought Leaders: Click here to go back to the Thought Leadership Series homepage, or start reading the Digital Disruption Thought Leadership Series here.

funding reform

Changing the way we fund research

Attracting and keeping talented women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) fields is not just a matter of equality for the sake of equality. While it is important – young girls and women should have the same opportunities as men – great advances cannot be made without the collective diversity of thinking that both women and men bring to the table.

I feel I have been quite fortunate in my career to date. After my PhD, I left Australia to undertake a postdoc at Harvard with one child – four years later I returned with three.  While my productivity during the postdoc could be argued as lower than average, I was in hindsight insulated from ‘reality’ through the support of an amazing team and a major National Institutes of Health Program Grant.

Returning to Australia, I realised that without real recognition of career disruptions in an individual’s research track record, people like me would be considered ‘uncompetitive’. While this was not the only reason I left research, these hurdles did contribute to identifying my new career path.

While working at the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) I had the privilege of managing funding schemes worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually to support great health and medical researchers. More importantly, I was able to establish the Women in Health Science Committee.

Through the work of this committee we were able to implement a number of strategies that aimed to both acknowledge the difficulties women face in the field of research, and secondly to address issues around the retention and progression of women in the field. This included consideration of career disruptions, part-time opportunities and making institutions who received NHMRC funds take stock of their gender equity policies and practices. While great advances have been made, there is still so much more that needs to be done and it cannot rely solely on the shoulders of funding agencies.


“If we don’t focus on attracting and retaining bright and intelligent women we will continue to lose the capacity to make real progress in society through poor management of this valuable resource.”


Recently I have joined the Academy of Science to work with the Science in Australia Gender Equality (SAGE) team.  SAGE is a national accreditation program that recognises, promotes and rewards excellence in advancing gender equality and diversity in STEMM in the higher education system.

While it is in its early days, I hope that SAGE or a similar accreditation model becomes a permanent feature of the sector and that funding agencies continue to reform practices to encourage women to be recognised for their efforts. We need many talented and innovative brains working in the STEMM fields.

If we don’t focus on attracting and retaining bright and intelligent women we will continue to lose the capacity to make real progress in society through poor management of this valuable resource.

Dr Saraid Billiards

Director of the Research Grants team at the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC)

Read next: Jacinta Duncan, Director of the Gene Technology Access Centre, says industry-school partnerships are key to a gender balanced STEM workplace.

People and careers: Meet women who’ve paved brilliant careers in STEM here, find further success stories here and explore your own career options at postgradfutures.com.

Spread the word: Help Australian women achieve successful careers in STEM! Share this piece on funding reforms using the social media buttons below.

More Thought Leaders: Click here to go back to the Thought Leadership Series homepage, or start reading the Graduate Futures Thought Leadership Series here.

promoting women

Not just a ‘pipeline’ problem

It is well documented that the number of women in STEM at senior levels in Australia are low. This is not a new problem, it has been reported for decades. The only thing we can be certain of is that it is not just a ‘pipeline’ problem anymore.

Women are embarking on careers in STEM at the highest rates ever seen. There is still room for improvement, but the bigger problem is that women leave STEM careers at the formative early to mid-career stage. They never get to senior levels, not because they don’t want to, but largely due to a system where opportunities aren’t  on offer.


“If we do nothing, we will be having this conversation again in another 10 years.”


Despite the assumption that the main problem is women having children, there are much bigger issues in STEM. For example, at a recent meeting of STEM academics, the moderator asked for ideas or insights into what would help women’s careers to progress. The first person to raise their hand was a senior male professor. He announced that flexible work conditions and financial support for housework and childcare are needed to support females in STEM. Perfectly reasonable suggestions many would say, but the unintended consequences of him speaking gets straight to the heart of the issue.

Firstly, he and everyone else in the room thought it was acceptable for him to speak on behalf of entire portion of the STEM workforce that he will never be a part of. Secondly, after he spoke not one female academic offered any of their own suggestions. By speaking first he immediately set the discussion to focus on carer and home responsibilities, reaffirming that women bear the burden of these activities and have no other major issues.

Why do we continue to let this happen? I wonder if he had not spoken first, would we have been given the chance to raise bigger issues women in STEM face?

Recognising and promoting women

After many workshops, symposia, conferences and focus groups for women in STEM the same theme resonates: women in STEM need to be recognised and included.

Women are rarely promoted rapidly up the ranks, do not easily promote themselves and do not feel entitled to recognition – they will not ask to be an author on a paper, to be lead investigator on a large collaboration or to apply for leadership positions. Men find all of this easier to do, therefore women continue to leave STEM careers rather than promote themselves based on ‘merit’ or ‘excellence’.

Should we attempt to change the innate, instinctive behaviours of males and females who happen to work in STEM? Or should we change the structure and systemic biases that funnel men to the top and women out of a career in STEM?

We need to do both to achieve real change.

It is exciting times in STEM in Australia as the Science and Gender Equity (SAGE) pilot aims to do this over the next two years. Organisations such as Women in STEMM Australia, Franklin Women and Male Champions of Change are giving a voice to women.

The time has come for the STEM sector to move on from just acknowledging the problem, to intentionally including women. If we do nothing, we will be having this conversation again in another 10 years.

Dr Nikola Bowden

Research Fellow, School of Medicine and Public Health, University of Newcastle

Read next: Managing Director of the Dow Chemical Company Tony Frencham talks about the changing corporate culture for Women in STEM.

People and careers: Meet women who’ve paved brilliant careers in STEM here, find further success stories here and explore your own career options at postgradfutures.com.

Spread the word: Help Australian women achieve successful careers in STEM! Share this piece on recognising and promoting women using the social media buttons below.

More Thought Leaders: Click here to go back to the Thought Leadership Series homepage, or start reading the Graduate Futures Thought Leadership Series here.