Women in science: academics breaking ground on gender equity and equality

Elisa Quijano writes on the gender disparity amongst science academics

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While there remains equal representation of genders at an undergraduate and postgraduate degree level, the mass exodus of early career female scientists brings with it a loss of knowledge, talent and investment.

The Australian Academy of Science reports that only 17% of all senior academic positions at Australian universities and institutes are filled by women.

Within the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Science seven Schools and one Unit, only two are headed by women, with 23% making up all female Professors (level E) within the Faculty. Currently 29% of all Professors at the University of Sydney are female, with an aim to increase this to 40% by 2020.

Additional to gender quotas is the University’s “Bullying, Harassment and Discrimination Prevention Policy” set in place last year. Dr Jenny Saleeba from the School of Life and Environmental Sciences says discrimination is done “not in an obvious way”.

Professor Maryanne Large from the School of Physics agrees, saying that “gender discrimination is much more subtle”. She believes the largest driving factor in gender inequality is unconscious bias. “If you don’t know of the unconscious bias, then you won’t have that conscious to change.”

Dr Lindsey Gray from the School of Life and Environmental Sciences suggests that “until women start getting equal “air-time” in work- place meetings, the unconscious bias will sadly remain. “Unfortunately, there still seems to be a societal perception that “conventional” men are the most worthy movers, shakers and leaders”.

In a field dominated by men and a pressing need to change the culture of women being seen as outsiders, the Faculty of Science put forward a Gender Balance Action Plan in March. Titled the Women’s Career Acceleration and Leadership Strategy (WCAL), it aims to reach the University’s set gender targets.

As the 2020 gender quotas are collective, not all faculties are required to reach the targeted 40% for female professors. A University representative said “it would therefore be unreasonable to expect Science to have achieved a 40% figure by 2020. A more reasonable target of 33% has been set by the Faculty of Science to be reached by 2020.”

The WCAL Strategy brings together the faculty’s array of programs and initiatives, such as the Strategic Promotion Advice and Mentoring (SPAM), the Physics Equity and Access Committee (PEAC), the faculty governed Equity and Diversity committee and the ‘Family Friendly’ schemes.

Professor Fiona White from the School of Psychology and co-founder of the SPAM program says such initiatives “target the glass ceiling within academia”. White, who lacked an influential mentor during her earlier career, believes that “because of SPAM… women now have a mentor.”

Through the SPAM program female academics are advised on more senior (level D & E) roles through the assistance of feedback on applications and practice interviews.

Dr. Jenny Saleeba from the School of Life and Environmental Sciences acknowledged that “it was very hard to find a role model… I think I would have benefited from being able to find someone who I felt had a really good balance between work and life.”

Professor Large, however, believes that an emphasis on sponsorship rather than mentoring will aid female academics. “Sponsorship will more actively make sure they are given opportunities,” she said.

Currently in place at the university are three equity fellowships with the Thompson fellowship open to women only, designed to address the gender disparity in academia. Such fellowships aim to offer an opportunity for women to move from Senior Lecturer (level C) to Associate Professor (level D) and on to Professor (level E).

Professor Large discussed how it is the key transitional period between more provisional periods of employment and on to permanent contracted positions that women will be at the age and life stage to start a family. When motherhood begins, women typically exit science academia.

The Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) group reported women making up half (48%) of junior academics but only a fifth (21%) of senior academics. “I do think these equity fellowships are assisting mums”, says Professor White.

However, Professor Madeleine Beekman from the School of Life and Environmental Sciences suggested that such schemes can create a greater divide between the genders, feeding an attitude that women only achieve high positions because “it was given to them”.

On taking time off to become a mother, Professor Beekman believes it’s “a choice that women make. It’s easier for men to have it both ways, that is biological.”

As the Faculty’s ‘Gender Action Plan’ acknowledges the University’s gender targets won’t be reached by 2020 due to current staffing structures, the School of Physics is “the leader within the Faculty”, Professor Large says.

The PEAC’s provisions have included a new parent room (with breastfeeding chair and change table), and shortlists for all positions within the school have a target of 40% to be female and all positions must be offered with a part-time or job-share option.

A PEAC Equity Officer Professor Large encourages women “to be more challenging”. “Women will only apply for promotions when they feel they think they fulfil 100% of the criteria, differing with men applying when they believe they meet 70%. This attitude magnified over an academics career sees women left behind.”

Professor Beekman explained that it’s important to have more female scientists in lectures and laboratory classes, allowing “the students to see female role models… with women at lots of different academic levels”. As PEAC worked to include more female students in the School’s marketing and communications they are set to challenge the stereotype of a traditional scientist.

In an industry where talent is judged on paper publication count, such a merit structure often sees female academics that miss out on opportunities or become mums lose momentum.

A critical setback for both genders as parents is when an academic decides to take up a

temporary position overseas, taking with them their family. The rigid childcare structure “inhibits parents from taking advantage of these international opportunities”, Dr Saleeba explains. “Childcare has to be easily accessible, it’s a given”.

Acknowledging the key issues that affect women in reaching more senior roles in academia is being championed by the SAGE pilot program. SAGE is co-chaired by Australian Laureate Fellow Professor Nalini Joshi, the School of Mathematics and Statistics’ first female Professor.

Differing from the faculty’s action plan, it endeavours to investigate the causes of gender disparity rather than set gender targets or quotas.

“Identifying what diversity brings, [we can] use that knowledge to address the disparity of not only gender but diversity in academia across disciplines,” proposed Dr Saleeba.

Initiated last September, SAGE follows the framework of the UK’s successful Athena Swan Charter, designed to improve gender equity and diversity in the Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM) disciplines.

In October the Faculty will begin its participation, collecting data on gender equity policies and practices across the Faculty’s disciplines and upon presentation of this apply for an Athena Swan Award. In the UK the bronze, silver and gold awards have started to be linked to funding and the university or research institute’s public image.

“What’s nice with the data collection is it puts it in front of people,” Professor Large noted; “the targets look good, but it’s actually making a change”. She is optimistic as the goal of reaching gender equity within universities has now “become a competitive space”.

Dr Saleeba also noted the influence of diversity on research and productivity, explaining that “diversity leads to better decision making and to a different way of thinking. I think science will benefit from a diverse makeup of participants.”

Professor White encourages her fellow female academics to “recognise the unconscious bias against women, push yourself, be a bit less safe”.

Although academia is incredibly hard work, as Professor Beekman emphasised, Professor White remains hopeful, encouraging female students to “never let the thought of a hurdle stop you from pursuing an academic goal or scientific endeavour”.