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gender equity

Gender equity through Athena SWAN

Featured image above: Dr Susan Pond speaking about gender equity at the 2016 SAGE Symposium. Credit: Australian Academy of Science

Led as a joint venture by the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) and the Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE), Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) is conducting an Australian pilot of the UK’s Athena SWAN Charter.

SAGE works towards a vision that women and men will be equally represented in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics & medicine) disciplines in our higher education and research organisations, including in leadership roles.

Despite the fact that higher education enrolments by gender in Australia reached parity in 1988, the percentage of women gaining the rank of full professor in most faculties has remained consistently below 20% to the current day.

This failure to achieve gender equity matters because the Australian higher education and research sectors are:

  • leaking female talent;
  • wasting some of their best people;
  • failing to benefit from the additional range of perspectives and backgrounds they would bring to the table; and
  • losing the opportunity to perform better.

It matters because gender equity is a moral and business imperative. It matters because of the challenge of innovation.

Key to Australia’s economic competitiveness and growth, innovation requires an increasing national proficiency in STEMM. Innovation will be driven by the ability of our higher education and research institutes to generate breakthrough ideas and produce excellent STEMM graduates. It will be driven by the ability of these graduates to translate breakthrough ideas into innovative products and services.

SAGE has adopted the Athena SWAN Charter because it provides a rigorous, system-wide process of gender equity data collection, evaluation and consultation in order to identify the gaps between policies and practices and establish detailed action plans for change.

It requires institutions to demonstrate in their Athena SWAN Award application that they have undertaken and acted upon honest self-appraisal and self-reflection, starting at the leadership level.

The process is transparent – all applications for an Athena SWAN award are made public.

To ensure integrity and rigour, and to assess how Athena SWAN might boost productivity and outcomes in the Australian STEMM landscape, the SAGE Pilot will:

  • commission an independent evaluation of the Pilot;
  • adapt and tailor the Athena SWAN framework to the Australian context;
  • focus on Australian-specific areas such as Indigenous Australians in STEMM;
  • use analytics on pooled data to design informed and evidence-based solutions;
  • identify issues in gender equity that are common across institutions and require policy change across the sector; and
  • through the peer-review process, identify and document best practices that are shown to be working in STEMM.

SAGE and the Athena SWAN pilot in Australia are good news stories.

The bad news is that the widespread resistance to women pursuing careers is longstanding. The feminist, Betty Friedan, whose 1963 book “The Feminine Mystique” changed the lives of many women in the US and worldwide, framed this as “The Problem that has No Name.”

The bad news is that gender discrimination in society is not necessarily intentional or overt. It is unconscious and deeply ingrained in our societal psyche. It flourishes under the radar and is very hard to overturn.

Such discrimination emerges in strange circumstances – for example when women act in ways that aren’t considered sufficiently feminine, or when women advocate for themselves.

Men and women in large part unconsciously find these women unseemly; find them overly demanding and unlikeable.

Hillary Clinton, as an example, is suffering this curse of unlikeability. Scholars agree that it is largely because of her gender.

As Rebecca Sheehan from the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney wrote recently, “Clinton’s ratings dropped significantly each time she sought political power through electoral office – whether running for US Senate or presidency.

“However, once she achieved positions of power, her approval ratings increased. As Secretary of State, she had an approval rating of 66% (a number Obama himself never reached), and was arguably the most respected politician in the US.

“Now, more than half the country can’t stand her.

“The swings in opinion and their timing suggest that her apparent likeability problem is not only – or not actually – about her. Instead, it’s more about a broader dislike of women who challenge the traditional gender order.”

In her just-released book, What Works – Gender Equality by Design, Professor Iris Bohnet addresses head on how such unconscious bias holds us back in achieving gender equity and why de-biasing each and every individual’s mind has proven to be difficult and expensive.

Bohnet’s emphasis is on de-biasing organisations instead of individuals, as is that of Athena SWAN. She demonstrates that taking this approach has great impact, often at surprisingly low cost and high speed. This is where the Athena SWAN Charter comes to the fore.

Athena SWAN seeks to call out gender inequality by providing evidence for its existence and negative impacts. Athena SWAN seeks to design out from our universities and research organisations the systems that entrench the status quo of gender inequality.

We must work together, men and women, to ensure that Australia’s universities, research organisations and innovation systems can take advantage of our full talent pool.

– Dr Susan Pond AM, FTSE FAHMS

This article is an edited extract from Dr Susan Pond’s speech presented at the 2016 Science in Australia Gender Equity Symposium.