The modern disciplines and industries of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) have developed over centuries, from the natural philosophers of the Renaissance to the multi-billion dollar global enterprises of today. With only a few exceptions – Ada Lovelace, Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin among them – men have dominated the institutions of STEM, brought new technologies and innovations to market, and inevitably reaped the recognition and the rich and varied rewards.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the structures and processes that underpin STEM today have evolved in a way that strongly favour men. Reflecting on my own career, I well remember my surprise at being asked to change a regular Saturday morning departmental staff meeting to a time more compatible with the family responsibilities of some of my female colleagues. The request was eminently sensible, but such considerations were only just beginning to register with STEM leaders of the 1990s.
Fast-forward to 2016, and while many of the policies and procedures that support hiring and promotion practices have improved, there remain significant structural and cultural problems that need to be overcome.
There is a sharp and in some cases growing discrepancy in representation of women and men across the academic spectrum, with women holding more than 50% of junior positions across most STEM disciplines, but fewer than 20% of full professorships.
Professor Tanya Monro, Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of South Australia spoke on this issue with Professors Nalini Joshi and Emma Johnston at the National Press Club in March 2016. She described the ‘motherhood penalty’ that has been shown to affect income, career advancement and perceived competence relative to men and to women without children.
Catherine Osborne also spoke on the ABC Science Show about how the lack of flexibility and the short term nature of contracts offered to early and mid-career scientists – particularly women – forced her out of her chosen profession.
In an effort to address these issues, the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering joined forces in 2015 to launch the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) initiative that is piloting the Athena SWAN Charter; a UK-based accreditation framework that rewards universities and other research institutions on the basis of how much they do to improve gender equity in STEM.
Thirty of Australia’s 40 universities have now joined the SAGE pilot. So have a number of medical research institutes and research agencies, CSIRO among them. The Academies are grateful to the Australian Government for their support of this initiative through the National Innovation and Science Agenda.
However, the efforts to change the many structural barriers to gender equality in STEM are only the beginning. More insidious, and therefore more difficult to overcome, are the significant cultural norms and unconscious biases that affect day-to-day interactions between men and women working in STEM, as they do throughout society.
There is clearly much to be done. Forward thinking organisations are setting targets for achieving gender balance in senior STEM roles by 2025 or 2030. Between now and then, programs like the SAGE pilot, Male Champions of Change and the Panel Pledge will make a difference, but true change will require leadership and commitment from us all.
Professor Andrew Holmes AM
President, Australian Academy of Science
Read next: Dr Saraid Billiards of the NHMRC sheds light on funding reforms that are vital to the retention and progression of women in STEM.
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