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What it’s like to be a woman working in science, and how to make it better

There are still barriers to overcome to keep more women in science. CIAT/Flickr, CC BY-SA

What it’s like to be a woman working in science, and how to make it better

This Wednesday saw the launch of the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) pilot program by the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) in partnership with the Academy of Technological Science and Engineering (ATSE).

SAGE is a gender equity program to address the chronic underrepresentation of women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM).

The Conversation asked women in the sciences to reflect on their experiences working in the field and comment the significance of the SAGE initiative.


Nalini Joshi
Georgina Sweet Australian Laureate Fellow in Mathematics and the Chair of Applied Mathematics at the University of Sydney

I was the first female professor of mathematics ever appointed to the University of Sydney, Australia’s oldest university. I remained in that singular position for 14 years, until July this year when the number doubled; we now have two female professors of mathematics!

When I arrived, the most common question I got asked was: “are you a real professor?” I tried to respond: “yes, according to my payslip, I am.” Later I worked out what the question meant. Was I a chair of a discipline area? Or a permanent named chair corresponding to distinctive research and scholarly leadership? Or was my position of lesser distinction?

I wondered then whether new male professors would have been asked that question. The underlying message was that being female is incompatible with being chair of a discipline. It also implied that I couldn’t belong.

I have been the only woman in most rooms for most of my professional life. I had come to terms with contradictory subliminal messages a very long time ago, and they were not going to stop me pursuing and solving problems in mathematics.

The standard approaches undertaken by Australian organisations for equity have been blind and deaf to these subliminal messages. Most organisations would say they are ticking all the right boxes for equity, but at the same time remain puzzled by the persistent lack of diversity at the senior levels.

The SAGE initiative aims to create a framework that will bring systemic, subliminal bias to light and change the gendered landscape in Australian organisations.


Tanya Monro
Deputy Vice Chancellor Research & Innovation at University of South Australia

I will never forget the day when, as a 31 year old new physics professor recently returned to Australia, I sat down to my first meeting with my colleagues. Fists banged on the tables, voices were raised and I found myself pulling my chair back ever so slightly and asking myself what I was getting myself into.

It was certainly a culture shock after seven years in the UK working within a very diverse and dynamic research centre. It seemed ironic to me when well intentioned colleagues would tell me that I needed to be less “aggressive” when what I was doing was simply being persistent and determined in figuring how we could establish the partnerships, research infrastructure and a team with the critical mass required to make a difference. Or that I should just bring along my babies when I needed to lecture.

When I found the criticisms start to sting, I would kid myself that they came because of my age not my gender.

As a 14 year girl who discovered physics as a result of an inspirational teacher at an all-girls school, it never entered my head to question whether a women could succeed in science. I figured out that I needed to get a PhD as the basic entry requirement to being a professional physicist, and off I went.

When at university I started to note some significant differences, particularly around exam time, when my male friends would seem supremely confident after exams, whereas I and my female friends would instantly agonise over the things we found too difficult. It took me a while to realise that this was a confidence gap rather than an ability gap, as the gender split was never evident after the results came out.

One of the most transformative things that made a difference to me, and stopped me being one of the “leaks” in the career pipeline, was when I was fortunate enough to secure a Royal Society University Research Fellowship at The University of Southampton at age 27.

This meant that I no longer had any job security issues, and that I knew I could pursue my dreams in science without sacrificing the choice to have a family. A few years later, when my husband and I had our first child, and I was working four days a week after my return to work, the director of the centre in which I was working spontaneously reframed my role as being full-time, while only requiring me to come in four days. The sense of feeling valued I got from gave me a huge boost and my team grew to over 25 people.

It is a great joy being able to mentor emerging scientists, but it is sobering to reflect on the stark differences I have experienced in talking to these young scientists. The majority of the men have an attitude of “I’m enjoying myself, doing well, let’s see where this takes me”, whereas many of the women ask for some certainty that they will have job security into the future so they can contemplate parenthood.

It’s clear that while we certainly attract outstandingly capable women into STEM, we need to do something really different to keep them there. The current system, which typically involves a sequence of short term contracts, simply doesn’t work for many women, so they leave. We simply can’t afford to lose half of our talent pool if we want science and technology to play a major role in transforming Australia’s future.

I am thrilled that we have launched the SAGE pilot, which will enable us to drive the adoption of best practice in our universities and medical research institutes. I am proud that The University of South Australia is one of the inaugural members of the Athena SWAN Charter in Australia.

This focus, which isn’t on understanding the problem, but is rather on concrete action based on changing institutional policies and practices is just what we need at this time. I very much hope that by the time my children go to university they will never be in a room where the filter for who is at the table is based on gender rather than talent and drive.

Women are already working in all fields of science. Australian Synchrotron

Maggie Hardy
Senior Postdoctoral Research Fellow at The University of Queensland in the Institute for Molecular Bioscience

Google provides two definitions of the word sage. The first is “an aromatic plant.” The second is where we hope to see ourselves but half of us don’t: “a profoundly wise man.”

The definition of ‘sage’ has a gender bias. Wikimedia

In many ways, this is where the challenge lies: it is one of a mounting pile of microaggressions directed towards women.

Researchers have helpfully identified four major patterns of bias women in STEM careers face at work in the United States. Black women face an additional fifth type of bias.

I still think it’s great to be a scientist. I have three children under three years of age, and for me and many others a career in research is a fantastic place to be a working mom, despite the need to account for career interruptions due to maternity leave.

But we still need real change to support women researchers and their careers. We should protect researchers from sexual harassment at work, as I’ve outlined previously here, and here. Policy should support early-career researchers, especially at the level B/C mark where women start to evaporate.

We should support science communication and engagement, because if people don’t know the value of our research how can we save funding for science at budget time?

We need to recruit and retain excellence in a way that proportionally represents the diversity of our nation. The challenges I face as a white woman are compounded for women of colour, and conversations about equity should be inclusive and intersectional.

There’s another definition of “sage” given in the Oxford English Dictionary: practically wise, rendered prudent or judicious by experience. With any luck, this is what the SAGE Forum will help us all become.


Suzanne Cory
Immediate Past President, Australian Academy of Science, and Honorary Distinguished Professorial Fellow, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research

When I was growing up, my mother and her peers gave up their paid jobs when they got married, to look after their families and support their husbands’ careers. They also contributed greatly to society as unpaid volunteers – at the local baby health centre, on school committees, delivering meals on wheels or organising local charity events.

But my mother had yearned to be an opera singer. In unguarded moments, she and her friends would admit to feeling frustrated that they hadn’t had the chance to achieve their own personal dreams, or be seen clearly as individuals rather than simply as a mother, carer or wife.

The role of women in our society was changing by the time I took my first forays into the workforce. I was fortunate to have male mentors who always supported my career. Although my promotion may have been slower than it should have been, I never felt that any door was closed to me. But a great deal more change is needed if every woman is to have the opportunity to fulfil her potential in society.

This is an extract from the Boyer Lecture from September 2014.


Amanda Barnard
Office of the Chief Executive (OCE) Science Leader and Head of the Virtual Nanoscience Laboratory at CSIRO

Like all women in STEM, I endeavour to conduct myself as if my gender is irrelevant, assuming that I’m judged on my skills and knowledge alone. I conduct myself this way because that is the way I want to be treated, and the person I want to be. But I know it is also a bit naïve.

Like many women working in STEM, I have experienced my share of discrimination, but it has not been a defining characteristic of my career. I’ve noticed during my time in Australia and abroad that this varies by nation, by organisation, and as a function of time.

I’ve had good experiences, where I can honestly say my gender played no part in how I have been perceived, and I’ve had bad experiences where I would have to be in a state of utter denial not to recognise unintentional biases from colleagues. Some of these interactions have bordered on insulting, but I know they were not intended that way.

One such occurrence was earlier this week. For many years these incidents played on my mind, and I admit I have occasionally reevaluated my decision to dedicate my career to STEM as a result of them.

In more recent years I have decided to turn it on its head and see the positive side. Like some women in STEM I have found myself to be the only female in a meeting, or on a committee or part of a project, and I choose to see this as a competitive advantage. I think differently, and I bring something different to the table. I’m proud of that, and would not change it for the world.


Chloe Warren
PhD student, DNA Repair Group, Hunter Medical Research Centre and University of Newcastle

During my science outreach work, I get so excited when I see little girls getting interested in science. But I’ve had parents ask me what it’s like to work in academia, and I have to honestly tell them that it’s probably in their kids’ best interests to look elsewhere.

We spend so much effort thinking about ways to make science – especially maths and physics – more accessible and interesting for girls. But, to be honest, that’s not even half the battle.

People shouldn’t have to compromise between having a happy family and having a fulfilling career. Yet, so often it falls to women to make the difficult decisions. Having children doesn’t have to be a deal breaker.

I’ve seen so many wonderful female colleagues who’ve found returning to work so challenging and inflexible, that they’re unable to continue on with that same passion for science as before they left.

The academic structure grew up around a world comprised of full time workers with full time wives. It’s not going to evolve of its own accord to support a modern workforce comprised of both genders, working part and full time together. The SAGE initiative provides an opportunity for us to reclaim the academic structure to make it work for us and everyone.

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