visible signs of support

This past week or two has seen very encouraging signs for women in Australian science and research.

First, the CEO of the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), Prof Warwick Anderson, announced that Australian universities and medical research institutes were on notice (Act on equality or risk funding, unis told Monday 16th June). (Sorry that some of the links in this post are behind paywalls – there is a supporting video featuring Prof Warwick Anderson and Dr Saraid Billiards from the NHMRC).

In 2013, the NHMRC had requested information on policies that were in place to support women at NHMRC-funded universities and research institutes. Over half didn’t respond at all. The NHMRC committee for women in health sciences (of which I am a member) were charged with reading through the submissions, and identifying the best gender equity measures. These are outlined here. We also added a few measures of our own that didn’t feature in any submissions, including – dare I say it – seminar series gender balance.

The NHMRC evaluated the submissions itself and concluded separately that very few universities or research institutes scored highly in support measures for women. Unis and institutes were then asked by the NHMRC CEO last week to provide further evidence of their effective gender equity policies. Prof Warwick Anderson indicated that responses could impact on the allocation of future NHMRC funding of over $800M pa.

The early and mid-career researchers Forum (EMCR Forum) of the Australian Academy of Science had been proposing such measures more than a year ago. This week, the EMCR Forum welcomed the move by NHMRC and called for the Australian Research Council – which funds fundamental and applied research with the exception of clinical medicine and dentistry – to follow NHMRC’s lead to promote “positive action to close the gender gap in Australian science”.

The next major announcement was on Tuesday 17th June, when Adam Bandt MP (Greens) – the Federal member for Melbourne – gave a speech in the House of Representatives highlighting the issue of women in science and research.

He noted that women scientists are chronically under-represented in our universities and research organisations, and that this is unacceptable in 21st-century Australia.  He reported that the NHMRC’s ratings of the country’s universities and institutes found that 70% of those that responded were unsatisfactory or poor. He also noted Prof Warwick Anderson’s statement that “we are throwing away talent”. Adam Bandt suggested that work-life balance and job insecurity were major issues for women, and that “(the time when young) researchers are establishing their careers is also the time when women have to decide whether to continue with their career or to start a family. This is not a conflict they should have to face and it is not one male researchers typically face”.

Actually, some men suggest that one way of overcoming gender inequity is for men to actively take on this conflict. Andrew Brooks and Andrew Siebel made the point on the Women in Science Australia blogsite earlier this month that unis and institutes should provide support to men to allow them to participate fully in childcare and parenting. Moreover, they argued, we as a society should remove the cultural stigma applied to those men who do take time off from their careers to care for their children. I couldn’t agree more.

But let’s get back to Adam Bandt’s speech. He said that missing out on women in science means missing out on new ideas and innovations. He noted the UK model of supporting women in science through the Athena Swan Charter and stated “This is exactly the sort of framework this country’s research institutes should look at”.

This was music to my ears. Music, sweet music, that also brought tears to my eyes. Many others felt the same. One memorable tweet from @deborahbrian that day, “Just a little bit in love with @adambandt today”.

But that wasn’t the end of it.  On Wednesday 18 June it was reported that the Australian Academy of Science is “pushing for the research sector to follow the UK and adopt a charter to promote better gender equity policies within institutions” (Calls for gender equity get louder). Just today, Nobel Laureate and ARC Laureate Fellow Prof Brian Schmidt at the ANU stated “I don’t believe alpha males are any better at research than anyone else. But they do very well on average. As they say, he who shouts loudest gets the most attention.” (Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt leads academy’s equity push – sorry, it’s behind a paywall). He supports “a proposal for Australia to adopt the British system which encourages research institutions to sign on to a charter and have their equity policies independently assessed.”

In Feb this year, the Academy established the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) Steering Committee to drive this process. The committee is chaired jointly by Brian Schmidt FAA (ANU Canberra) and Nalini Joshi FAA (ARC Laureate, U Syd) and also includes Sharon Bell (DVC Charles Darwin U Darwin, author of the 2010 FASTS Women in Science in Australia report and the soon to be released update previewed here), Caroline McMillen (VC U Newcastle NSW), Roslyn Prinsley (Office of the Chief Scientist, Canberra), Marguerite Evans-Galea (Founding Chair of the Australian EMCR Forum within the Academy, Melbourne), and myself (ARC Laureate, U Qld, Brisbane).

The SAGE Steering Committee is convening a development meeting in Canberra on July 30. Representatives from research stakeholders across the country have been invited to contribute to a dialogue to discuss the UK’s Athena Swan Charter, and to find a solution that is fit-for-purpose for Australia.

So let’s check all that again. 1. The Chief Executive Officer of the NHMRC. 2. A Federal MP. 3. The Australian Academy of Science. 4. A Nobel Laureate. Each highlighted that there is a problem regarding the progression of women in science in this country. Each stated that this issue needs to be addressed. Although brewing for some time, these announcements all happened in a little over one week. In Australia. Seriously, I had to pinch myself. Several times.

This flurry of activity has certainly garnered the attention of those passionate about addressing gender inequities in science in Australia. Hopefully it’s also enough to get the attention and action of those who are not (yet).

So what can you do as an Australian researcher/scientist? Let your university or institute know that you want change. Better support for women. Better gender equity policies. More diversity in leadership. These measures benefit everyone. Let’s make a competition out of being the best at supporting diversity.

**Updated some hours after posting with a weblink to AAS SAGE Forum

3 thoughts on “visible signs of support

  1. So encouraging to hear of all these positive actions. Tomorrow is my first day back at work after four months of maternity leave. I have loved every minute of the last four months, but have been plagued with how this time off and subsequent reduced work load will affect my track record and ability to secure funding. I hope these encouraging signs provide the much needed stimulus to give this serious issue the attention it deserves, so woman can feel confident in their role as a scientist and mum…..and embrace the challenges that come with doing both!

  2. Regarding the low numbers of women in senior academic roles, I think there are good reasons why that might change for the better within a surprisingly short timeframe. See text of my invited address given at the International Women’s Day Awards ceremony at University House, ANU, 7 March 2014, posted at https://www.academia.edu/6364627/Womens_careers_Out_with_the_linear_pipeline_and_in_with_the_new_nonlinear_paradigm. I shared the podium with Brian Schmitz and the ANU VC, both of whom outlined some very proactive strategies for increasing the proportion of senior women in academia.

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