Younger generation of women told: ‘Science is not a field that’s just for men’

Professor Caroline Miller has had an illustrious career in public health policy in South Australia. She’s worked at Cancer Council SA, is a professor at the University of Adelaide and is the Chief Operating Officer at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI).

As part of Cosmos’ coverage of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we sat down with Prof Miller to talk about her career and how we can help the next generation of women in science.

Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

What does a day in the life of the Chief Operating Officer look like?

There’s a lot of different parts. As part of the senior leadership at SAHMRI I’m helping with the strategic work of the institute and helping make sure the place runs effectively.  

Then there’s the research group that I lead, which focuses on issues in public health policies and prevention related research. We’ve had quite a strong focus on tobacco control, we do a lot of work in obesity prevention and food policy.

During COVID, we turned our attention to providing a scientific underpinning for the state’s COVID response and providing direct assistance and scientific support to the chief public health officer.

What was your proudest moment as a researcher?

One of the things that I’ve been involved in with tobacco plain packaging. Australia was the first country in the world to introduce plain packaging on cigarettes – that’s 10 years ago now. So that took bravery on the part of our leaders.

Then those laws were challenged in the Australian High Court, and we had legal challenges in the World Trade Organisation. I produced some of the science that helped defend Australia’s laws so that policy could be rolled out.

I suppose when you work in public health policy, you’re trying to advance policy, which is going to genuinely make a difference in terms of cancer outcomes or diabetes, or kids not becoming addicted to smoking.

You see those hard fought successes come to pass and that’s something I think makes you proud.

This Saturday is International Day of Women and Girls in Science. What does a day like that mean to you?

Days like this are about celebrating women in science, and speaking to a young generation of women to say: science is a field for you, science is not a field that’s just for men.

Science has a culture of inclusivity; however, the practical realities of science mean that while we see really good representation at junior and even middle career levels of science for women, we’re underrepresented at the top.

It’s a time to promote women who have achieved in science and celebrate that, but I think it’s also a time to take stock and ask, where are we now? How far have we come and how far have we got to go?

Science is a great career for women. Young women are keen to enter science and we’re better off for it. We have better more well-rounded fields when we’re more diverse.

As you’ve said, women are less likely to be in those top-level positions. How do we fix that?

I think we are making progress to fix it. In the years that SAHMRI has been around we’ve seen some progress in our numbers over time.

We’ve got plenty of young women who are interested and very capable and scientifically competitive coming through. But it’s about making sure that our pipeline isn’t too leaky. We need to make sure that those women have role models that they can look up to and be mentored by. That women have the practical support that they need to continue on in science.  

A lot of the issues stem from the differences we have in society around caring for children. Part of what we’re trying to do at SAHMRI is to have a completely flexible work environment, which adapts to the needs of women and their caring responsibilities as well as encouraging them to take on those roles as well.

Science, and particularly grant funded research, can be very discouraging, it’s very competitive. But I think we have to do everything we can to accommodate the reality of life for young women.

What do you think would have made moving up the ranks easier for you personally?

I’ve got two children so I think that flexibility would have made a practical difference to me as I was on my path. Affordable childcare would have made the path easier as well.

I worked at the Cancer Council before SAHMRI and that was a workplace with a lot of strong and impressive women. Being able to have women mentors was definitely an advantage for me.

In the time I’ve been working I’ve seen quite a lot of change, and It’s good to see these things get better over time.

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