34 obstacles women face to become CEO

In their 2014 Leadership Quarterly paper (Vol 25 Issue 2 pp 245-266 – sorry it’s behind a paywall), Terrance Fitzsimmons et al reported on the causes and timing of gender disparity in CEO roles (eg 55% of women are tertiary qualified, only 3% of CEOs are women). The authors interviewed 30 female CEOs and 30 male CEOs (matched by industry and company size) to find out how each had accumulated their leadership skills. They reported 34 causes (at 4 different timings) of gender disparity in CEO roles. That is, women face 34 barriers to their progression to CEO. Some were organisational or structural barriers. Some were discriminatory barriers. Put another way, male CEOs benefitted from 34 types of privilege or positive discrimination, that helped them succeed to the top job.

Reading through this paper, it seemed to me that these 34 obstacles might also be relevant in academia. I’m summarizing their findings here, and you can compare these to your own “lived experience” (family, education, career progression) and accumulation of “personal capital” (skills, experience, mentors, networks etc). The text in italics is taken directly from the Fitzsimmons et al paper (and I recommend you read it in full if you have access). My summaries/comments are added throughout in normal font.


Male CEOs reported very similar childhoods to each other; there was a traditional division of labour where dad worked outside the home and mum worked in the home and cared for the kids. Female CEOs also reported very similar childhoods to each other, but their experience was quite different to the males. Almost all female CEOs reported having a mother who worked in paid employment or was involved in a family business. They almost all had to overcome adversity and take on adult roles as a child (eg through a forced international move; the death or serious illness of parents, siblings or close relatives; domestic violence or serious marital instability; or an estrangement from their parents before the age of sixteen”), through which they developed resilience and self-efficacy (I’ve written about my experience here – be warned, I’m told it’s confronting).

As children, male and female CEOs were treated differently: fathers generally encouraged boys but not girls into academia and careers; generally boys but not girls had the opportunity to take risks in their play and to develop leadership skills through team-based sports. Most female CEOs reported that a strong female role model – who did not fit the stereotypical domestic role – figured prominently in their lives as children.

Barriers for girls to develop the same “career capital” as boys were summarised as:

  1. lack of access to team based leadership activities
  2. lack of access to non-traditional female role models
  3. lack of career guidance
  4. directed into traditional tasks and roles
  5. not allowed to engage in risky childhood play

Junior management

In the early career stage, Fitzsimmons et al found that the self-confidence developed through adversity for women CEOs was not a substitute for the confidence to lead others that was accrued by men CEOs by this stage. The male CEOs had experience in leading and the women did not. This put women at a relative disadvantage.

Barriers for women at this early career stage, compared with men, were summarised as:

  1. not choosing major public company industries (in an academic setting, perhaps this would be equivalent to not training at an elite university – though I don’t know if fewer women than men train at these compared with other institutes – is there any evidence out there?)
  2. less willing to risk moving when faced with blockages (during their career, women CEOs moved far more often than men, in order to get promoted)
  3. lack of leadership capital creates heightened risk of failure
  4. lack of advice, planning and or mentoring (role models and mentors are essential in academia too, see my previous post on this issue)
  5. lack of confidence in communicating success (Impostor syndrome. Also, women CEOs attributed much of their success to the help of mentors; men CEOs were more likely to take credit for their success themselves)
  6. double bind in leadership roles (men are expected to be aggressive, women to be sensitive/compassionate. Yet women are evaluated negatively whether their leadership style is too feminine or too masculine.)
  7. not given line roles (opportunities are passed to men rather than to women)
  8. sexual harassment (yep, that’s a problem in academia too, see a previous post)

Middle management

By this point in their careers, most male CEOs had adopted their childhood model of a family unit: their wife worked in the home, was primary carer of their children and took responsibility for all domestic duties. Men CEOs interviewed often noted that having a family contributed positively to their career. Women CEOs reported the opposite: they had to “develop strategies to ensure their…career capital was not at risk”. Women CEOs that had children were the primary carers, had taken career breaks (usually quite short), had supportive partners, and engaged others to help with kids.

Barriers for women at this mid-career stage, compared with men, were mainly due to caring responsibilities, lack of support structures, and discrimination on the basis of gender:

  1. work structure: can’t part-time or job share line roles
  2. difficult to return to line roles/skills diminishment (after career breaks)
  3. selection methodologies: application versus sponsorship (differences were apparent in the way female and male CEOs were appointed to middle-management – women applied on their own initiative, men were sponsored)
  4. flexible work practices lack experiential credibility and resented (flexible work practices can be even more difficult for men to access for the same reason)
  5. lack of appropriate childcare/partner support (childcare access also a problem in academia)
  6. constrained in accepting international assignments (those women CEOs who reported international experience had gained that before they migrated to Australia)
  7. lack of opportunity to acquire social capital (lack of time due to family commitments meant that women CEOs focused on completing tasks rather than developing networks)
  8. children and relationships causing opting out (this is also a reason women leave academia at the mid-point in their career)
  9. assumption of having children: “will leave anyway” (women with children, but not men, are discriminated against in this way)
  10. won’t put in hours: “lack of commitment” (women with children, but not men, are discriminated against in this way)
  11. optionality of career: “lack of drive” (women with children, but not men, are discriminated against in this way)
  12. fear of reputational damage to mentors through sexual innuendo (another double bind; there aren’t many females up ahead who can act as mentors to mid-career women)

Executive management

When it comes to the source of the CEO appointment stage, once again there were some distinct differences in the narratives of men and women CEOs. Men were twice as likely to be appointed to the CEO position through an executive recruitment agency. Women were twice as likely to be appointed through an informal contact.

Barriers for women at this stage, compared with men, appeared to be due to leadership stereotypes and perceptions:

  1. lack of visibility to board networks
  2. lack of breadth and depth of experience relative to peers (presumably due to barriers at earlier stages)
  3. cultural inertia: it’s just the way it is (don’t blame us – it’s society/system fault – Athene Donald wrote about this same issue recently)
  4. riskier appointments result in failure (the glass cliff)
  5. disconnect between diversity management and succession planning (making the right noises but not the right actions)
  6. not credible in front of stakeholders (discrimination by boards; implicit bias)
  7. doesn’t possess appropriate leadership traits (discrimination by boards; implicit bias)
  8. doesn’t possess the confidence or resilience to be CEO (discrimination by boards; implicit bias)
  9. informal interview processes/co-option (discrimination in appointment processes)

What next?

It seems there is quite a bit of overlap in the issues affecting gender disparity in CEOs and leadership positions in academia and science. However, many of the barriers outlined above are not only barriers to women, they also block progression of those who don’t fit the white male heterosexual stereotype of leadership, and perhaps those who do fit that stereotype but who want to participate more fully in raising their children.

The finding that so many structural barriers and implicit biases are in play makes for sobering reading. On the other hand, that these 34 obstacles are now identified from this cohort of achievers can help us develop processes to remove them in the future. For example, some of the barriers for girls to develop leadership skills and self-efficacy during childhood are being addressed by Gina Meibusch through her innovative Girl Guides QLD Women of Substance program with the tagline “if they see it, they can be it”.

Going back to those 34 obstacles, it seems that I’ve been pretty lucky in my “lived experience”. By my count, only half of the barriers apply to me. Mostly because I don’t have children and because my childhood experience as eldest girl in a large family helped me develop self-efficacy (defined as a “belief in one’s own ability to complete tasks and reach goals”). There were one or two obstacles not listed in the Fitzsimmons paper that probably held me back in mid-career. Maybe I’ll write about those some time.

But now over to you. How did you fare against the 34 obstacles in your own “lived experience” and “accumulation of career capital”?


*updated on 1 Sept 2014 with correct link to Women of Substance*

*updated on 1 April 2017 to correct numbered lists

light at the end of the tunnel?

This week was pretty amazing. First I returned from more than 3 weeks away – **ON HOLIDAYS** – without email or internet (well not much anyway). As always, it was a mad scramble to catch up with things the first day back. And if I’m honest, I’ve still not quite caught up on everything.

Then, on Tuesday afternoon I traveled to Canberra to prepare for a very important meeting run by the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) Forum. The SAGE Forum is an initiative of the Australian Academy of Science, and is chaired by two incredible scientists, Nobel Prize Winner/ARC Laureate Fellow/FAA/astronomer Prof Brian Schmidt (ANU) and ARC Georgina Sweet Laureate Fellow/FAA/mathematician Prof Nalini Joshi (Sydney Uni). The SAGE steering committee also comprises Dr Roslyn Prinsley from the Chief Scientist’s Office, Prof Sharon Bell DVC Charles Darwin University/author of previous reports highlighting gender inequity in academia, and Dr Marguerite Evans-Galea from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and former Chair of the Academy’s Early- and Mid-Career Researcher Forum. And me. Regrettably Prof Caroline McMillen, VC and President at the University of Newcastle was unable to attend. What a team though. It’s humbling, inspiring and exciting in equal parts to be part of this incredible group.

The SAGE Forum Development meeting on Wednesday 31 July 2014 also included invited representatives from the following organisations:

  • Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes
  • Australian Academy of Science
  • Australian Research Council
  • Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering
  • Defence Science Technology Organisation
  • Group of Eight Universities
  • Innovative Research Universities
  • National Health and Medical Research Council
  • Office of the Chief Scientist
  • Regional Universities Network
  • Research Australia Rural Research and Development Corporations
  • Universities Australia

We were all there to talk about gender equity in science, research and academia. To my knowledge this is the first time these organisations have been brought together to discuss this issue. We began with the data – presented first by Roslyn Prinsley showing that in Australia, in all fields of science and engineering, women progress through the pipeline at considerably slower rates than men. Then Sharon Bell presented new data supporting these figures and revealing that women are leaving in much greater numbers than men in large part because of the casualisation of the workforce, including the prevalence of short-term contracts in research and academia.

My contribution was to present on the Athena SWAN charter run by the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) in the UK, which represents one possible model for addressing the systemic problems. Athena SWAN was established in 2005 in response to the chronic under-representation of women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine (STEMM), and the negligible change in progression of women in STEMM since the 1990s (i.e. the same issues we face in Australia). During my recent holidays in the UK I had the opportunity to visit the ECU in London and to talk with the CEO David Ruebain and the Athena SWAN manager Sarah Dickinson. They also very kindly provided me with information to present at the SAGE Development meeting.

The Athena SWAN Charter’s 6 guiding principles are simple:

1. To address gender inequalities requires commitment and action from everyone, at all levels of the organisation

2. To tackle the unequal representation of women in science requires changing cultures and attitudes across the organisation

3. The absence of diversity at management and policy-making levels has broad implications which the organisation will examine

4. The high loss rate of women in science is an urgent concern which the organisation will address

5. The system of short-term contracts has particularly negative consequences for the retention and progression of women in science, which the organisation recognises

6. There are both personal and structural obstacles to women making the transition from PhD into a sustainable academic career in science, which require the active consideration of the organisation

Athena SWAN members apply for awards that recognise attainment and leadership in gender equality. A University department can only apply for awards once the University has achieved a bronze award. Currently, there are 319 award holders (61 Bronze universities, 4 Silver universities, 162 Bronze departments, 85 Silver departments and 7 Gold departments).

Why is Athena SWAN different? Because of what it is NOT. It is not simply a box-ticking exercise to show that appropriate policies are in place (eg family friendly support packages, support for women returning from extended leave) although these are clearly important. Instead, Athena SWAN requires member organisations to:

1. Collect data on women’s progression within their organisation
2. Critically analyse that data
3. Identify reasons for exclusion and under-representation of women
4. Develop an action plan to address these reasons (so that action plans will necessarily be unique to each department)
5. Show progress over time

There were 10 founding members of Athena SWAN in 2005, including the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge. Now the charter boasts 115 members. A turbo boost came in 2011, when Dame Sally Davies (Chief Medical Officer in the UK) announced that as of 2015 large MRC funding to departments would be conditional on an Athena SWAN Silver award. According to David Ruebain and Sarah Dickinson, this changed the landscape in the UK – universities now see an Athena SWAN award as a necessary measure of excellence, and departments want to be involved to show how well they are doing on this issue. Recently the NHMRC in Australia suggested they might also tie funding to gender equity.

To date, there have been two reviews of the impact of Athena SWAN in the UK: one in 2011 performed by the ECU itself and then another this year run independently by the University of Loughborough. Both found similar outcomes. Better visibility of women; better representation of women on decision-making committees; increased proportion of women in STEMM departments; improved working practices to support career progression. Interestingly, the report noted that “the good practices implemented generally benefits all staff and contributes to improving the working environment and culture within their institutions”. Making things better for women, makes things better for everyone. More flexible work options, better work-life balance, different models of success.

Athena SWAN has been so successful, and so visibly successful in a relatively short space of time, that this year the Republic of Ireland signed up to work with the ECU on a 3-year pilot study for its own universities. Athena SWAN is also being rolled out to independent research organisations within the UK. These organisations want to be involved because Athena SWAN is an informed, tested, validated system, with procedures established that lead to real and substantial change.

After these presentations at the SAGE Development meeting, a general discussion followed of where we are at and where we need to go next. As reported in the Australian media, there was a consensus around the table that gender inequity is a systemic problem and that action needs to be taken urgently. One way to address this might be to adopt something like Athena SWAN in Australia. The next step in the process is a SAGE Forum workshop (25th and 26th November 2014) involving representatives from all universities and medical research institutes, as well as the organisations listed above, and the SAGE steering committee. The Office of the Chief Scientist has provided financial support to organise the workshop. David Ruebain and Sarah Dickinson from the ECU in the UK will attend and present on the Athena SWAN model.

These are exciting times. There appears to be a pinpoint of light at the end of the tunnel, but much more remains to be done. I urge you to please encourage, lobby, hector your university, medical research institute, or other research organisation to send a representative with some clout to the SAGE Forum workshop in November. For more information on the workshop please contact the SAGE Forum.

We need to ensure everyone is consulted, everyone has buy-in, everyone is on board. Let’s work together to fix the system. Let’s make the system work better for everyone.






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

a funny thing happened today

It’s been a while since I’ve had a few moments to myself to think, let alone put words on screen for a blog post. In the nearly three weeks that “reason and resilience” came out I’ve had a seemingly endless run of hard deadlines: ranking 30 Fellowships for a national research committee, presenting on my career path at an Institute career forum, being interviewed live on SCOMBOMB (terrifying), hosting a collaborator from Perth for a couple of days, traveling to Melbourne for a family get-together one weekend, catching up with my expecto patronum circle of peers another weekend (all three wonderful women flew in to Brisbane from other Australian cities), running annual performance reviews for four team members, participating in my own performance review with the head of Division, providing comments on a submitted paper for an international journal, revising a draft of one of our papers, submitting another paper to a journal for review, and editing proofs of two recently accepted papers. That’s not to mention the usual round of weekly meetings and committee work. No wonder my head is spinning.

Anyway, today I did have time to think. I had taken a day of annual leave to attend a breast cancer screening clinic (my dad’s side of the family has a history of the disease). In between having my breasts squashed to the point where the tissue must surely spurt out through the nipples, I was able to take a few deep breaths and mull over my surroundings. I should add, just in case you are wondering, that I was given the all-clear. No sign of disease.

The clinic is superbly run. Appointments fill a year in advance for general screening. Upon arrival, I was taken to a change room, provided with a front-closing gown in a bright fabric, and given a locker key. I was instructed to remove all my upper clothing and place these in the locker, don the gown and move to the waiting room where I would be called for appointments. The waiting room held 20-30 people, all wearing the same happy gown, and variously reading, talking, laughing, or watching TV. To help make the wait more bearable, a coffee machine was available in the corner, with biscuits, and someone had kindly brought in slices of home-made cake. This was all free. Yum. Did I mention I like cake? Especially home-made cake.

I had brought some reading material with me (in case you want to know, it was a paper titled “Gender disparity in the C-suite: do male and female CEOS differ in how they reached the top?” in the April 2014 issued of Leadership Quarterly – I’d provide a link but it’s behind a pay wall), and got started on that with a cup of tea in one hand. Before many pages of the paper had been turned, and certainly before I’d finished the cuppa, my name was called to go to one of several mammogram rooms. After divesting myself of the gown, I stood naked from the waist up in front of the mediaeval torture machine, while the radiologist twisted and turned my body this way and that to get the images of the innards of my breasts. Re-gowned, I then returned to the waiting room.

Another 10 minutes or so, and I heard my name called again. This time I was to see the consulting doctor who advised me that the mammograms were fine (just a few small cysts that were there last time), and who then asked me to put my arms above my head and proceeded to examine my breasts. Again, nothing too much out of the ordinary but ultrasound was advised as a follow-up. So, back to the lounge, and a few more pages of reading before my name was called once more. Not long after, I was lying supine beside the sonographer in a darkened room with the screen glowing ultrasound images of my upper body lady parts.

Through the wonders of technology, the images magically appeared in the doctor’s computer where I went for my final consultation. As indicated above, all was clear. No evidence of anything nasty lurking in the breast tissue. I was free to leave a little over 2 hours after arriving.

The funny thing about my morning, apart from the obvious thing of getting my breasts flattened in an instrument resembling an old-fashioned washing-machine mangler, was that every single person I met was female. The receptionists, the breast clinic nurses, the patients, the radiologists, the consulting doctors, the sonographers, and other highly skilled professionals at the clinic. All were women. And most were of a similar age to me or older.

That is entirely different to my usual day.

geography trumps gender?

Recently I posted on the topic of conference speaker policy. I suggested that maybe we can change the unconscious-bias driven lack of invited women speakers at conferences. My suggestion was for conference and symposium organisers to state upfront what they’re trying to achieve in terms of speaker diversity and then report against that for everyone to see.

I’ve had a lot of feedback on that post, including emails and phone calls and face-to-face meetings with others on the actions they are taking to adopt policies for conferences they are organising or attending. This is fantastic!

Having said that, this past week two things happened to make me think we still have a long way to go.

First, I was sent an invitation to attend a research symposium in Brisbane, the city where my lab is based. The speaker list for this symposium was sent around with the invitation: only 2 of the 22 speakers/chairs (<10%) were women. When I questioned this, the organiser indicated that he was aware of the situation, and had aimed for 20% of women speakers but two of the women on the invited list had not been able to accept. He also indicated that he had to “balance” the invited speakers from different research units – presumably because those units contribute to the centre he runs. Geographic balance apparently rates higher than gender balance.

As so often happens when there is poor gender diversity in speakers, there was only one person selecting the speakers, and he wasn’t a woman. I wondered too late to ask, why the organiser did not replace the women speakers who did not accept, with other women speakers. There are certainly more than 4 women to choose from in the pool that was available. Of course, there is no speaker policy for this symposium. The organiser did express a desire to do better next time, if there is a next time, and suggested I might help in the organisation in the future. So, as it turns out, I may have to break my policy of not attending poor gender balance symposia for long enough to determine the audience gender balance at this one to set the baseline for any future symposium.

The second thing that happened was that I was asked to co-chair a session at an upcoming national conference. Normally at this particular conference, which has a large proportion of women delegates and generally has a good gender balance of speakers, the two co-chairs of a session decide on three invited speakers (who give longer talks) and then select two more speakers from abstracts (who give shorter talks). However, in this case the organising committee invited only one chair initially and he was not informed until it was too late that he needed to identify a co-chair before inviting speakers. What’s more there was a very short timeline (1 or 2 weeks) and no budget to support invited speakers. When he did find out that he needed to work with a co-chair, he contacted me by email to ask if I would act in this capacity. He explained the situation and noted that he had already invited three speakers, “most of the hard work is done”. All three of the invited speakers were men.

I rang him up and explained that I had made a public statement that I did not support conferences or symposia that did not have a policy or good faith attempts at gender balance. In this particular field, I would have expected 1 or 2 of the 3 invited speakers would be women. Since they were not, and since I had not been involved in the invitations, I could not accept the kind offer to co-chair the session. When I asked why no women speakers had been invited, he said that he did understand the need for gender balance and had in fact thought of one woman (!) to invite but that would have meant that all three speakers were from the same city. There it is again. Geographic diversity trumps gender diversity. And once again I thought too late to ask, why wasn’t one of the men from this single city dropped off the invitation list rather than the woman? That way there would be gender balance and geographic balance.

Now this conference, I know, does have a speaker policy although it is not yet online. The conference promotes gender, age and geographical equity in all aspects of the organisation, including organising committees, chairs and speakers. In this case though the policy does not seem to have filtered through strongly enough to those deciding on the invitations. Another reason to make policies visible, to measure performance against the policy and improve it next time.

Saddened and frustrated by these two incidents, I have mulled over why it is that in both these cases the organisers expressed their desire to get good gender balance but then explained the lack of gender balance because geographical balance got in the way. As if that is reason enough. It’s not. Women researchers don’t congregate in one city; they are dispersed across the land in this field. All the women scientists of merit in Brisbane are not holed up in one research unit. They are distributed across them all. So why is it that geography is higher on the priority list than gender diversity? And why can’t we have both? It’s not that difficult. See http://www.crystal29.com/conference-policy/

If I didn’t know any better, I might be tempted to think that for these two people, inviting women speakers doesn’t rate highly. It seems to be an afterthought which can be dismissed easily in favour of some other spurious factor. Spurious, because when it comes down to it geographic balance and gender balance are not mutually exclusive. It is actually possible to get a good balance of both. You just need to think about it a bit to overcome any possible unconscious bias.

As I said above, much work still needs to be done.


show me the policy

I grew up in a large family. I’m the eldest of 4 girls, but 3 of my 5 brothers were born before me. So, from my earliest days I had to compete with much more established male players for my fair share of a limited pool of resources. You could say that this background set me up admirably for a career in academia.

According to my mum, there were only 2 instances when, as a child, I got upset to the point of tantrum (disclaimer: my mum might be a little biased). One of these was when she forbade me wearing my favourite dress to play outside: it was only to be worn on “good” occasions. The other time, I was playing with my brothers when one of them took a toy from me and held it above my head. I was about 14 months old at the time, and when mum looked up to see what all the commotion was about she found me dancing angrily around my 3 older brothers who were gleefully goading me to get that toy. Apparently, I then stomped out of the room, with red face and furrowed brow, muttering “them boys!!!” over and over again.

It’s probably fair to say that I am reasonably even-tempered (why would I disagree with that assessment?), but one thing that is guaranteed to get my goat nowadays is seeing a conference program with poor gender balance.

I’ve become an activist for speaker diversity ever since a public symposium celebrating crystallography, my field of science and one that has a rich history of women pioneers. To my dismay I found that I was the only woman scientist speaking at the symposium (there was one other woman in the program of 13 – and she was a great speaker – but she was not a crystallographer/scientist). The symposium was excellent, the speaker quality was terrific but I was very upset that this public showcase of crystallography was so unrepresentative of its community.

I was a token woman. It reminded me of this ad from the 1980s.

I don’t want tokenism to be the message we send the community about women and science. Consequently, I decided to look more carefully at conference programs and seminar series, to be more vocal about diversity and balance and to change the way I participate in conferences.

Why is conference program diversity important?

First, if we are going to encourage women into careers in science we need to provide role models. We need to show women and men that it is normal to be both a successful scientist and a woman. One way of doing that is to give women scientists a platform to present their research. If we don’t address gender balance in speaker programs we will continue to normalise a gendered stereotype of scientific leadership. Then when crunch time comes – usually 10-15 years post-PhD – women will continue to leave in far greater numbers than men in part because they see no path ahead for themselves.

Second, a speaking invitation contributes enormously to the profile of a researcher. By making more invitations to women, and other under-represented sections of the academic community, we provide a boost to their visibility and their track record. This will help them to progress by raising their national and international profile and help support their applications for grants, academic positions and fellowships.

Third, conferences and symposia are great ways of generating new collaborations, new ideas and new directions in science. If we keep inviting the same people, and the same types of people, over and over again, we limit the diversity of thought and potentially the opportunities for innovation.

How to change

There is no reason not to have gender balance on speaker programs. So why does it still remain a problem? Laziness on the part of the organisers? Unconscious bias? Whatever the reason, it needs to change. For me personally, I want change because I don’t want to be a token woman again and I don’t want this issue to be passed on to the next generation of scientists. As academics, we are experienced at analysing data, so let’s collect the data and use it.

My approach is to implement conference policies that outline what the committee is trying to achieve in putting together the program. The policy should be transparent, visible and the outcomes measurable. So how to implement this?

1. If you, male or female, are invited to speak at a conference, or to join a conference organising committee, ask for the conference policy before you accept. If they don’t have one, which is usually the case, offer to help draft one. As an example, the following text is from an email I sent recently in response to a request to co-chair a symposium at a national conference next year:

“I’m happy to support the meeting, and am available on those dates. However, before I accept I need to see the conference speaker policy. 

I’m trying to ensure that all conferences and meetings I’m associated with have a reasonable gender balance. For a number of reasons, conference speaker lists sometimes don’t reflect the diversity of the community/delegates. It’s critical for the future of science that young women and men can see real evidence that scientists can succeed regardless of gender. One way of doing this is to make sure that diversity is explicitly addressed in conference policies and programs and that these policies are made visible. It may be that this is already sorted for this meeting and you can point me to the weblink. On the other hand, if you’re not sure what a conference policy should look like, you could consider the examples here and here.”

The first time I did this, I thought it would be the last time I would get an invitation. But I’ve been doing this for a year now and so far, so good. Although there is still work to be done. 🙂

2. If you are a relatively junior researcher, male or female, count the number of male and female invited speakers at the conference or seminar series you are attending. How well does it reflect the audience?  If the invited speaker gender balance doesn’t approach the gender balance of the audience, raise this with the organisers. If you are too timid to do this by yourself, get a group together and make a submission. Establish an ECR committee and lobby for change. Let the organising committee know that you expect the program to represent you and your community. Ask to see the conference speaker policy and the gender statistics for delegates and speakers. If they don’t have a policy, or the numbers, offer to help; develop the policy with the committee, and make it visible on the website. At the very least this will have them thinking about gender balance and diversity. And it will certainly help raise your profile!

3. If you, male or female, are responsible for organising a departmental seminar series, develop a policy, and make it publicly available. Report statistics.

4. If you, male or female, are a conference organiser, ensure the program committee you establish is balanced by gender, geography, and science to reflect the community it serves.

My take is that speaker diversity should reflect the diversity of the delegates/scientific community. Too often it reflects the diversity of the conference committee and if that isn’t balanced then neither will be the program.

Resistance to change

As you might expect, I have experienced some resistance to these proposed changes, but most are easily addressed.

1. Some will say there aren’t enough senior or mid-career women in the field to get a balanced program. This is usually easily refuted, by collecting the data (eg by working with the organisers to generate a list of women speakers that could be invited). When I did this last year, surprise surprise, we collected enough names in one afternoon to fill 2-3 years of a seminar series.

2. Some will say that a policy isn’t needed because they have gender balance already. Do the analysis. What is the proportion of women in the audience/community and in the speaker list? Maybe it is OK, but sometimes invisible inequities prevail. Check the data.

3. Some will say we have a policy, but making it public may make it look as if we’ve had a problem in the past and are apologising for it. When this was brought up, a male colleague chimed in “what is the point of having a policy if no-one knows about it…put it online”. Thank you male champions of change.

4. Some will say the most important thing is having a high quality program. Ummm. Why would you think addressing gender balance would be inconsistent with a high quality program?

5. Similarly, some will say the most important thing is diversity of thought not speaker diversity. Diversity in life experience = diversity of thought. Again, how is having a gender-balanced program not addressing diversity of thought?

Change is up to us

We have the opportunity to change the way things are. My one voice alone will make very little difference overall. But there is strength in numbers. If we all take the same line on conference policy, transparency, visibility and reporting then we can change the status quo. As I was writing this post, I was contacted by Kat Holt who has come to the same conclusion as me and is establishing a website to “crowdsource and collate the gender breakdown of Australian conferences“. Brilliant. This is exactly what we need. Collect great examples of conference policy for everyone to use. Report examples where conference policy is clearly needed. Identify how we need to change. Make change happen. Kat’s website also points to the American Astronomical Society Status of Women in Science webpage that I hadn’t seen previously. Wow. A treasure trove of data and ideas on how to address gender imbalance at conferences. Check that out too.

And you can sign on to the online petition set up by Virginia Valian and Dan Sperber where “signatories commit to accepting talk invitations only from conferences that have made good-faith efforts to include women“. I would suggest asking the conference to “show me the policy”.

In an ever-increasing competition for the conference dollar, perhaps we can have an even bigger impact on improving gender balance in academia by voting with our credit card. Specifically, don’t support conferences that have speaker programs that don’t reflect their community. And when you do boycott, let the organisers know why.

mentors and dementors

When I speak at career forums, I often begin by asking the audience what they consider to be the major reason for the high attrition of women in the academic pipeline. The two most common responses are (i) childcare responsibilities and (ii) sexism. My last post focused on sexism. And I’ll address caring responsibilities in future posts. But in this post, I want to highlight why I almost left academia 10 years ago.

Greg Petsko decribed beautifully the academic career as apprentice (PhD), journeyman (postdoc) and master (academic) and pointed out the disconnect between what we are trained to do as apprentices and journeymen, and what we need to do to succeed as academics. The academic master is key to a young apprentice’s progression. She or he will set the project, direct the apprentice, provide advice and career guidance, act as a referee and do much more besides. But the academic master is trained to be a researcher, not to manage people, or to be a good mentor. What if the academic supervisor is a dementor?

I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate in this regard in my academic career. My early supervisors gave me great advice and help: they actively sponsored me to succeed. For example, after completing my MPharm degree in 1986, I decided it was time to see the world. My MPharm supervisor, Peter Andrews, advised me to use the opportunity to undertake a PhD overseas. He recommended working with a colleague at Oxford University who was doing some really exciting research.

Wow. I was simply planning to go on a working holiday for 6 months. I was just a girl from Dandenong (a low socio-economic outer suburb of Melbourne). I never imagined studying at Oxford. Yet here was a professor telling me it was possible. He believed in me. So maybe I was good enough. Maybe I could do it.

Thing is, without that seed of an idea, and without the encouragement from a senior academic, I would never have had the courage or conviction to proceed. Some women leave at this point because “no-one encourages them to go on“. I was encouraged, and I did proceed.

So, how to find funding? Again Peter to the rescue. He pointed me to the Grants Register. After poring over the pages at the back index, I identified dozens of possibilities. Scholarships for women. Bursaries for Australians. Awards for young people to go to the UK. I applied for everything that I was eligible to apply for, and Peter helped by providing constructive advice for specific questions and by writing strong letters of support. In the end I was awarded a total of 5 scholarships, bursaries and awards for my DPhil studies. (Mind you, that was after dozens and dozens of rejections, but that’s a story for another day).

In Oxford and later in New York, I also had outstanding mentors in my corner, supporting and sponsoring me to succeed. However, there have also been obstacles to overcome without a mentor’s support.

After 2 consecutive Fellowships at the early and mid-career level, I failed to secure a Fellowship in 2004, 10 years after establishing my independent group. This meant someone else had to cover my salary. My annual performance appraisal that year was conducted with three senior academics – all male – rather than the usual one. Presumably, (I wasn’t told explicitly) this committee had to decide whether I was worth supporting. I provided the review documents the required week in advance. When the appraisal began, the chair of the panel began by thanking me for the documents but then explained that regretfully he hadn’t had time to read them.

Hmm. I thought. This is not a good start. I must be very low on his list of priorities. Perhaps I should excuse myself and come back when he has read them? After all, the relevant appraisal policy requires that the appraiser read the documents before the meeting. But I felt my job was on the line and I didn’t want to rock the boat, so I didn’t say anything. And neither did the other two committee members.

In the next breath, the committee chair offered this, “You know, the problem with you Jenny is that you are not seen as a leader.” Ouch. That hurt. Like a kick in the guts. I responded timidly….. “But I am a leader in my field. I am president of the national society, a member of the Academy of Science National Committee, I am on the scientific advisory committee of…..” but I was cut off. These were not evidence of leadership, these were service roles. Apparently I was elected/nominated to these offices, because nobody else wanted to do them. They didn’t count. If I wanted to succeed in science, I needed to be known for something. Something scientific. I tried again “But I am known for my work on disulfide bond forming proteins, there’s my seminal Nature paper of 10 years ago, several papers in Structure, and my PNAS paper this year, and in total I have over 60 papers mostly as senior author……..”. But no, apparently this wasn’t what they meant either.

To this day, I still don’t really know what they meant, because I switched off at about that point. I sat in self-imposed silence, nodding occasionally, while the panel mansplained to me why I wasn’t good enough. My silence was a self-preservation response that – only just – prevented me from bursting into tears right then and there.

I left work early that day, almost immediately after the appraisal. Walking to my car, I did burst into tears. Round and round my head went the words, “You are not a leader”. “You should be more like X, Y, Z” (insert any stereotypical white middle-aged male scientific leader name you like). But, I thought, I’m not them, and I don’t want to be them. I want to be me. And I can’t work any harder than I am already. If what I am doing is not valued, if I am not seen as a leader, then perhaps it’s time to leave.

This performance appraisal fanned the embers of self-doubt, low self-confidence, low self-esteem that many women harbour. For weeks, I pondered whether to return to my long-lost former career as a pharmacist. I was still registered, though I had not practised for almost 20 years. I investigated what it would take, and found that I’d have to re-train, and sit practical and theoretical exams; it would take time, but I could do it.

In the end, I didn’t leave, for reasons I’ll explain in a future post. Over the next 2 years, I applied for but failed to secure a Fellowship, though I was awarded several national prizes and my salary continued to be paid (so the panel must have believed in me to some extent!). Then, in 2007 I was awarded not one but two highly competitive Fellowships. My promotion to Professor was also approved that year. And in 2009, I was awarded the most prestigious Fellowship in the Australian Research Council scheme, the Australian Laureate Fellowship (a follow-up to the former Federation Fellowship but which now emphasised mentorship as well as research leadership). I became the first woman in the biological/biochemical sciences to be awarded either a Federation or a Laureate Fellowship. This just five years after being told I was not a scientific leader.

So, I think back to that performance appraisal. Was I being prepared for being booted out? Was I being given a kick up the butt to try harder? Either way, the approach used didn’t work with me. I lost motivation. I did not feel valued. I did not feel supported. I did not feel included. Yet, I succeeded anyway. Some may argue that my later success was because of, rather than despite, the dementoring. I don’t know. What I do know is that it was after this episode that I came closest to leaving academia. I wonder how many other women and men of merit would have left in the same situation. It takes extreme determination and self-will to continue on, when your superiors express a lack of faith in you, and your own self-confidence is at an all-time low.

So that was my dementor “soul-sucking” experience. Perhaps not as bad as some others I’ve heard about. But enough to make me seriously contemplate leaving academia. I’ve asked colleagues if they would share their mentor and dementor experiences. Here are some of them.

•”The contract offered a lectureship at Level B. I was so excited I signed it immediately. A senior male academic was horrified. “Don’t sign the contract, always negotiate.” He advised me what to do. I pulled the contract out and tore it up. I asked the Executive Dean for a meeting. I was nervous, but I put to him that based on my CV I should be appointed at the top of Level B and that I wanted his support for promotion to Level C the following year. Without blinking he agreed. Not only was I promoted the following year, the ED had seen my CV, I was on the radar.”

•”I was awarded a highly competitive Fellowship, and was placed with someone in the department who was meant to support me and my research. He never helped at all, but insisted on being listed on all my papers, and on using funds that I should have received to pay himself a top-up for mentoring me.”

•”My husband and I are academics at the same department. I am currently on my second national Fellowship. We have two children and we share the caring responsibilities. He has recently been offered a lectureship. I have been advised not to continue in science, that it’s too difficult for women.”

•”I arranged a meeting with my HoS to discuss the increasingly difficult situation of working with this person. When I arrived, the HoS was sitting together with this person, they were sharing a beer. It was clear they were mates.”

•”When she was overseas, she always delegated someone to fill in, to sign the forms and to take responsibility. She rotated that task across 5 people in turn. It meant everyone got an opportunity to lead.”

•”Lab meetings often included alcohol. My supervisor – a recently divorced 50-ish man – would regale us with stories of the young chicks he had picked up on the weekend.”

•”When he came in he changed the structure so that everyone reported directly to him. He didn’t inform anyone in positions of responsibility below him. They all found out together in public, in a presentation he made to 150 people showing the new organisational chart on a slide. They had been moved off to the side, without a title or a line of command. It became pretty clear very soon that he wanted total control and that there was no pathway for anyone except him. It was about domination not collaboration.”

•”She was grounded and had lots of life experience and perspective. She made the place positive, you felt like you were part of a team, that your contribution was valued.”

One colleague noted “When I was going through my dementor battle, three of my friends were battling their own dementors. We were all 30-something females – and had hit a wall with some insecure 50-something male dementors. It’s interesting to see 10 years later that although one of my friends did leave academia, the rest of us are now doing better than our dementors.”

Perhaps the life lesson here is that everyone has dementors to tackle, and that it’s part of the process of growing up as an academic. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, as my mum would say. Not very helpful, but there it is. The best advice I can give is to find your own mentor, or better yet a circle of peers that you can meet with regularly to discuss challenges and obstacles to your career.

And when it comes to dementors, how can you avoid having your soul sucked out? Well you can do what I’ve learned to do from my own circle of peers: be proactive and practice your own patronus charm.

So when you hear me muttering “Expecto patronum!” under my breath, you’ll know why…..

sexism and the seventies: back to the future?

Perhaps I should explain how it is that I’ve become so vocal about addressing the attrition of women in academia. I can pinpoint the start of it to a place, and a time about 5 years ago. But for the full story I need to take you back with me to my early teenage years. And that was many years ago. In the dark ages. Before twitter. Before facebook. Before the internet. Before email. Before …well you get the message. It was in the 1970s.

Things were different then. Most women stayed at home after they married. For my family, my mum had to work; there were 9 children to support and that definitely needed two incomes. As the eldest girl in the family, a lot of the caring and housekeeping responsibilities fell to me. But I digress. That’s not where this story is going, though I might return to it at some point in a later post.

What I wanted to share with you were two events from this long-ago time. Two incidents that occurred in relatively quick succession. These events marked my realisation that I was growing up, that society saw me as a young woman, even if I didn’t yet accept that. Both events occurred as I was walking home alone from high school.

On the first occasion, it began with a car full of young men driving in the opposite direction and yelling obscenities at me; I ignored them, put my head down and continued uphill, quickening my pace and hoping they would drive on. Chillingly, the driver of the car executed a U-turn and pulled up beside me, with the men now shouting lewd remarks from a much closer vantage point. Adrenaline kicked in, I made my own U-turn running as fast as I could back down the hill. To my terror, the car reversed to keep pace with me, while the men inside continued their offensive and humiliating tirade. It only ended when I ran into a house – any house – and knocked on the door to ask for help, breathless and in tears, but there was no-one home. Fortunately, the car drove off and I made my way home again.

On the second occasion, I noticed a young man bicycling towards me on the pavement. I moved to my left to make room for him to pass, but instead he veered towards me.  As he closed in he made a deliberate move to grope my breast. This time, I took the offensive. I shoved back with all my might, pushing him off-balance and off his bike. Then I ran hell for leather for home, which was mercifully just a few hundred metres around the corner.

The terror I felt on both occasions can still be recalled with complete clarity. And with it the sense of shame, powerlessness, confusion, revulsion. I’d done nothing to provoke the harassment on either occasion. I was just a girl walking home from school.

When I look back to this time growing up, I recognise that most days nothing happened. Yet it is these two events that stick in my mind. Perhaps because I learned an important life lesson, to be aware, to be alert. That I was a target because I was a woman.

I had hoped that since the 1970s things would have improved for young women and girls. That’s not the case though. The same things – and much, much worse – happen every day as documented by Laura Bates’ @EverydaySexism project. The mission of the project is “By sharing your story you’re showing the world that sexism does exist, it is faced by women everyday and it is a valid problem to discuss.”

Last year, @EverydaySexism asked people to post their experiences of everyday sexism in academia. I was horrified to read the tweets that came in. The same things that happened to me as a young academic so many years ago were still happening now. In 2013. Women’s bottoms were being pinched, their ribs being tickled from behind by senior male colleagues, they were receiving excessive unwanted attention from males at conferences. Thank God for @EverdaySexism, “Women are silenced through sexual harassment every day. Now it is time to speak out”. Women now had a voice.

I didn’t tweet anything to @EverydaySexism at the time. But I’ll share a few of the everyday sexism experiences from my academic career. The first occurred about 15 years ago, when I was a mid-career researcher struggling to find my place in the world of academia. A male professor, and collaborator of mine, sat with two or three younger male colleagues in the tea room and, whenever any young woman entered the room, discussed aloud whether she was wearing a G string.

I said nothing.

Then, about 5 years ago at an international conference in Europe, I overheard 3 male PhD students discussing another conference delegate, a female PhD student who had won the major poster prize. They weren’t discussing her research, or her brilliance. They were discussing her physical attributes and what they would do to them if they had the chance. It was sickening.

I said nothing.

Over the next days and weeks I grew angry with myself. I was by now a senior academic, a professor, someone of status. Why didn’t I say anything? Why should this behaviour go unchallenged? I thought about the young female student and wondered what she would have to put up with if those male PhD students, or men like them, became her colleagues, collaborators, peer reviewers in the future.

Then I got my answer. A female colleague, a professor at another university in Australia, was in a conference committee meeting. She was the only woman present, in a group of 8 or 9. It was a dinner meeting and alcohol was involved. That’s not to justify what happened, just to set the scene. The woman offered  an opinion on a specific discussion point, and the immediate response from one of the men – a leading light in the Australian science scene – was “That’s like cocksucking”.

Surprised at how her idea was dismissed out of hand, she asked what he meant by saying that. He boomed back “Come over here and I’ll show you!”.

All the men laughed: some loudly, some nervously. The woman said nothing.

I hasten to add that most men I work with respect women and women’s opinions. But how many men put in a similar situation would call out such overt sexual harassment. How many would let it slide and laugh along with others. It was a joke right? Get a sense of humour.

What would you have done?

Anyway, as a consequence of these events, I decided to become more informed. I began attending gender equity workshops, collecting data on the attrition of women in academia, and presenting at women in science events. I joined twitter and followed a number of women in science feeds. Through twitter I learned about this. And this. And this. And much more besides. I remember thinking last year at the height of these twitter storms, enough is enough, someone should do something about this. Then I realised that I was someone, and I could do something. So now I do. I call out sexism and bias.

Last year, at a major national health professional congress in Melbourne,  the entertainment at one of the evening social events included women dressed only in G-strings and tassels. This time, I said something.

At a dinner last year, where I was the only woman in a group of 5 peers, a male colleague made a sexually charged comment to a waitress. I called it out.

There are other things too, that I’ll talk about in subsequent posts, but you get the idea I hope.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not easy. Especially when the people being called out are my colleagues or more senior than me, or when I’m the only woman. My heart is in my mouth every time I voice my concerns. But I still do it. And I hope you will join me. Because if we say nothing, then nothing will change.

You see, I don’t want the next generation of academics – male and female alike – to feel that sexual harassment, discrimination on the basis of gender, objectification of women, and unconscious bias are acceptable in academia or elsewhere. Surely, if you have a mother, sister, female partner or daughter you would want them to have an equal opportunity to succeed, and to be treated respectfully by men.

So when you see it, say something. Call out sexism. It doesn’t belong in this millennium.

***I decided to post this two days earlier than intended, after reading the following post, which sends the same message ***


the incredible disappearing women of academia

Mission Australia’s 2013 youth survey found “For the first time ever, young women ranked equity and discrimination as the top issue facing the country….“. Perhaps this is not surprising given the treatment Australia’s first female Prime Minister received from the media during her term of office. What saddens me deeply is that the ultra-negative message about women in leadership trumpeted by many in the media is influencing a whole new generation. I was astonished at a family gathering in June last year when my 11-year old nephew told his high-achieving female family elders “I don’t think a woman should be Prime Minister“.

The issue of gender equity and discrimination is one that has occupied quite a bit of my time over the past few years. You see, as a female professor, I am in a distinct minority.

But when I started my scientific career in the early 1980s, there were about as many young women as there were young men undertaking the same undergraduate Pharmacy degree, and women were awarded the majority of academic prizes on offer. As a Master of Pharmacy student with mentor Professor Peter Andrews in the mid-1980s, again there was no noticeable difference in the gender balance of students. And as a DPhil student at Oxford in the late 1980s, gender balance wasn’t an issue either. Indeed, I was surrounded by amazing female role models: Nobel Laureate Dame Professor Dorothy Hodgkin was still attending seminars and my DPhil co-supervisor was the inspirational Dame Professor Louise Johnson. Perhaps I was just lucky that the field of crystallography, into which I had stumbled, was one with a long history of female pioneers. In any case, it was at about this point I suddenly and consciously realised that being a woman and succeeding in science were not mutually exclusive.

My DPhil was awarded in 1990, and after an ill-fated post-doctoral appointment at Bond University and a much more successful placement at Rockefeller University – with the amazing HHMI Investigator Professor John Kuriyan – I established my own lab in Australia in 1993. I’ve had great male and female mentors encouraging me to succeed, offering advice and pointing me in the right direction. I’ve scaled more metaphorical academic ladders than I ever dreamed possible. Yet I’ve also witnessed and experienced unconscious bias, overt sexist behaviour, and discrimination on the basis of gender. Twenty years on, the gender imbalance at my level is very obvious to me and very concerning. Over my career, women colleagues have disappeared from academia at a much greater rate than men. Now, I am often the only woman present in meetings of my peers.

In their recent paper Sixteen years of change for Australian female academics: progress or segmentation?  Marchant and Wallace (AUR Vol 55 (2) 2013) evaluated data collected from the Australian higher education sector over roughly the same time period that I’ve been an independent research scientist. Gender equity for Australian university students was achieved in 1987, and for university staff as a whole this was achieved in 2001. The percentage of women at academic level A in research-only positions has been above 50% since at least 1997. But women did not achieve parity at research-only Level B till 2009, at least 12 years later. Equality at research-only levels C through to E (where E=professor) has yet to be achieved. Overall, the authors’ conclude:

  • “Raw numbers mask ongoing, systematic underrepresentation of… women in the desirable career track roles and higher status levels
  • Males still constitute a large majority of the academic professoriate
  • Women’s overall status in Australian Universities continues to improve, albeit slowly
  • Apparent gains are patchy and women tend to be confined to ‘bad’ jobs as casual teachers
  • Overall, the increasing numbers of women (in academia) mask segmentation and marginalisation.”

At my own university the percentage of women professors hovered just under 20% from 2008-2012, though on the up-side it has increased from ~13% in 2003. However, at the current rate, it will be another 50 years before professorial gender equality is achieved. This low ratio of women at the top level, and the slow rate of change, is by no means unique. The gendered nature of universities and other research institutes is a worldwide phenomenon. The international journal Nature featured a series of articles in March 2013 for International Women’s Day on the issue of women in science, and highlighted the Lack of Female Leaders in UK universities in Dec 2013.  Recently, a vibrant discussion on the issue of gender segregation in religious lectures and debates at UK universities raised wry smiles. Gender segregation, vertical and horizontal, is already entrenched at Universities: men hold a greater proportion of higher level appointments and women hold a greater proportion of teaching-only roles at the lower levels.

In future posts I’m planning to write on specific issues that contribute to gender segregation, discrimination and inequality in academia.

Making universities better workplaces for women will improve their quality for everyone” Curt Rice has eloquently stated. I may be an idealist, but I’d like to think that such changes in the university workplace will happen, and that it won’t take 50 years. I’d also like to think that sometime in the relatively near future, young Australian women – our daughters, sisters, nieces – won’t feel that equality and discrimination is the major issue facing this country.  And I’d like to think that young Australian men – our sons, brothers, nephews (definitely nephews in my case) – won’t get themselves into hot water by parroting sexist media claptrap about women and their leadership qualities.