Tag Archives: Athena SWAN

SAGE pilot

Men of history, women of the future

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.

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 the SAGE pilot 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.

Why do women leave STEM careers?

Why is the subject of Women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) so important right now?  To answer this, it might be useful to analyse the issue on two levels: national and personal.

At the national level

Australia needs far more young people taking up careers in STEM. According to our Prime Minister, 75% of our fastest-growing industries require skills in STEM.  But women are greatly underrepresented in this sector. Hence the Australian Government’s new Women in STEM and Entrepreneurship grant program, which commits $8 million to encourage women to choose and develop a STEM career.

There are other national programs now running to increase the numbers of women in STEM. For example:

Unfortunately, the engineering profession has been slow to promote the excitement and opportunities for men and women who choose engineering careers. Engineers typically focus on solving problems and improving everyone’s quality of life, rather than promoting their own profession. The catchy video clip Your World. Made by Engineers. sponsored by eight universities and Engineers Australia should be shown to all school students, careers counsellors, teachers and parents.

At the personal level

Women are just as ambitious and competent as men in STEM. Their under-representation in the sector has a number of causes. One obvious one is that too few girls choose science and maths subjects at school, thereby preventing them from later choosing a career in STEM. But the sector also suffers from too many women leaving STEM careers early. Research on this subject shows that women leave for a multiplicity of reasons:

  • hostility in the workplace;
  • isolation associated with being the only woman in a team;
  • difference in work styles between men and women;
  • inflexible and long working hours;
  • lack of career advancement;
  • lack of self-confidence.

A current topic in the gender space is unconscious bias. This is a less obvious reason for too few women in STEM and women leaving STEM careers. There is no doubt that women in academia and business suffer from people with both unintentional (unconscious) and deliberate (conscious) gender bias, and the common misunderstanding that unconscious bias training eliminates this bias is unfortunate. The reality is that such training is useful, but is only the first step to managers and staff members making less biased decisions about their people.

Read more about why we need to come to terms with unconscious bias here.

Dr Mark Toner

Chair of ATSE’s Gender Equality Working Group and Consultant at Gender Matters

Read next: Gemaker’s Dr Julie Wheway explains why you’re biased but don’t know it (and how to fix it).

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 women leaving STEm careers 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.