Tag Archives: ARC

gender equality in research

Gender equality in research and physics

The underrepresentation of women in the STEM research sector in Australia is a significant issue. I acknowledge, with some degree of shame, that my own core discipline of physics is one of the worst offenders.

Data from the ARC’s latest Excellence in Research for Australia round indicates that women represent only 16% of academic levels A–E in the physics discipline. As with all other Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) disciplines, the fraction is even worse in higher levels — only 10% of physics professorial staff are women.

While this fraction is probably representative of physics around the world, there are some interesting exceptions. For example, in France, the overall rate of women in physics is much stronger (around 26%). As a practitioner of nuclear physics, I was always struck by the much stronger presence of women in that sub-discipline in France. Of course, France has the presence of Marie Curie, who was awarded two Nobel prizes for her contributions to physics and chemistry. Clearly role models matter!

It is with this in mind that at least two dedicated fellowships for exceptional women researchers are awarded under the ARC’s Australian Laureate Fellowships scheme each round. One of these, the Georgina Sweet Australian Laureate Fellowship, is awarded to a female researcher in science and technology. The award is won on the basis of merit, but these researchers are given extra funding to assist them to undertake an ambassadorial role to promote women in research and to mentor early career researchers.


“Australia’s research institutions need to take joint responsibility for the progression and retention of women in the research workforce.”


Australian Laureate Fellows, such as Professors Veena Sahajwalla and Michelle Simmons from UNSW Australia and Professor Nalini Joshi from The University of Sydney, are tremendous role models and are actively encouraging and supporting women to undertake careers in STEM. A fantastic example of this is the Science 50:50 programme, led by Sahajawalla, which aims to inspire Australian girls and young women to pursue degrees and careers in science and technology.

This is a start, but it is not enough. I have been determined to strengthen the ARC’s commitment to gender equality in research through a number of initiatives. We have achieved relatively even success rates for women and men across the schemes of the National Competitive Grants Programme, but we still need significant improvements in the participation rate of women in research.

While the ARC can promote and monitor gender equality in research, Australia’s research institutions need to take joint responsibility for the progression and retention of women in the research workforce. That is why it has been so encouraging to see the research sector’s very strong response to the Science and Gender Equity (SAGE) pilot. This is surely a pivotal step forward, and one we should all support to ensure it succeeds.

Professor Aidan Byrne

Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Research Council (ARC)

Read next: Macquarie University’s Professor Barbara Messerle highlights the need to celebrate cross-disciplinary role models who have paved non-linear careers from foundations 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 gender equality in research 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.

unconscious bias

Bias, both conscious and unconscious

It’s hard to believe that, in 2016, there is still a chronic underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) at senior levels. It’s recognised that family constraints, perceived lack of promotion opportunities, lack of mentorship and culture play a huge part. But to what degree does bias – often unconscious bias – inhibit women’s progress in STEM?

Unconscious bias refers to a bias we’re unaware of, which happens automatically, and is triggered by our brain making quick assessments of people and situations. Unconscious bias is influenced by our own background, cultural environment and personal experiences.

Everyone has subconscious biases, including you. They are simply the brain’s way of coping with and categorising all the information we receive every day. Our tendency to discriminate against a group or type of person may not be intentional, but we can do something to change it.

Science suffers from a perception of masculinity

In STEM, there is often an association of science with maleness, and scientists with masculinity. A quick Google Images search for ‘scientist’ yields many more pictures of men in lab coats than women. We’ve all been to conferences with all-male panels, and entire sessions with only male speakers. These messages and experiences at the back of our brain influence our decisions, and we don’t even know it.

Studies have shown that male students are more likely than female students to underestimate the strengths of their female classmates, despite similar grades. This bias against women can follow individuals from the classroom to the workplace. In research meetings, it’s sometimes assumed women are there in an administrative capacity, rather than being highly skilled, PhD-qualified researchers. My own sister, who has a PhD in machine learning and statistics, is often asked by men at conferences, “How comfortable are you with mathematics?”

So how can we improve things? It’s heartening to hear that the Australian Research Council has announced in their new gender equality action plan, which involves appointing more women to the grant application review committee. They’re also considering measures to help panellists become more aware of unconscious bias. In the US, some universities run programs on unconscious bias as a professional development opportunity for graduate students.

Five ways to fight unconscious bias

If you’re reading this – male or female – you can help by taking the following steps:

  1. Be aware

Recognise that bias exists – we all have it!

  1. Learn more

Learn about your implicit bias by taking the implicit association test (IAT).

  1. Take steps to address biases

If you find you have biases (most people do), address them. Actively learning more about female scientists and engineers, and having positive images of women in science in your workplace, classroom or home can help to ‘reset’ your biases.

  1. Call it out

If you’re at a conference devoid of women as speakers or panel members, say something. Ask why there is so little female representation.

  1. Showcase talented female scientists

The idea that merit is compromised if gender is considered is still a huge barrier to progress. There are so many amazing female scientists out there – we just need to give them platforms to be heard.

Dr Julie Wheway

Manager, Strategic Engagement, gemaker

Read next: Head of the School of Computer Science at the University of Adelaide, Katrina Falkner, reveals why Australia is on the verge of change for women in technology.

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 unconscious bias 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.

Telescope project funding boost

Featured photo above by Rob Millenaar

The Curtin University-led Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) radio telescope project has been awarded an Australian Research Council (ARC) grant to upgrade its performance by a factor of ten.

The $1,000,000 grant, part of the ARC Linkage Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities (LIEF) scheme, announced today by the Minister for Education and Training, Senator the Hon Simon Birmingham, will double the number of telescope antennas to 256 and quadruple the footprint of the MWA to 28 square kilometres.

Professor Steven Tingay, Director of the MWA at Curtin University, says the upgrades would make the telescope ten times more powerful in its exploration of the evolution of the Universe.

“By increasing the number of telescope antennas and the surface area of the MWA, the telescope will strengthen tenfold, like a weightlifter capable of lifting 100 kg suddenly being able to lift 1000 kg,” says Tingay.

Tingay described the MWA as a ‘time machine’ designed to look back in time more than 12 billion years, to watch the formation of the first stars and galaxies in the Universe, less than one billion years after the Big Bang.

“The MWA has been operating for almost three years and has collected over seven petabytes of data already, the equivalent of almost half a million High Definition movies,” he says.

“With the upgrade that this grant provides, we will able to collect even more and better data, helping to advance our understanding of the last unstudied phase of cosmic evolution.”

An international consortium of 15 organisations from Australia, USA, India and New Zealand built and operate the MWA, led by Curtin University.

As a result of the new funding, two new organisations will be added to the MWA consortium; Western Sydney University and the University of Toronto, Canada, increasing the MWA’s national and international reach.

The MWA is one of three official precursor telescopes for the much larger, billion-dollar scale Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and is the only SKA precursor to be fully operational for science. Half of the SKA will be built at the same site as the MWA, the CSIRO’s Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, over the next decade.

Key science, engineering and computing developments for the SKA are being tested and verified by the MWA, providing critical expertise to the SKA project. This includes working closely with key national initiatives such as the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre.

In the last two years, more than 70 scientific publications have been developed from MWA data. The MWA team also recently won a prestigious award for the telescope’s scientific impact from Thomson Reuters.

– April Kleer

This article was first published on 30 October by Curtin University. Read the original article here.