Tag Archives: senior positions

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.

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.