Breaking down bias and barriers holding back mums from progressing in science

Australia’s leading expert body in health and medical research will meet soon with global advocacy group Mothers in Science about a recent report calling on funding agencies to remove barriers and bias preventing scientist mums and caregivers from progressing professionally.

The Mothers in Science report calls for six actions: to financially support research continuity, provide flexibility for parents, eliminate bias, reform the grant application process, measure diversity and inclusion and provide support to address the impact of COVID-19.

The report says a third of mothers globally leave their full-time STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine) employment after becoming a parent. A similar proportion say their competence has been questioned by employers and colleagues after becoming a parent.

The National Health and Medical Research Council, which in 2021 committed nearly a billion dollars in grants, is among a handful of global funding bodies looking at incorporating the Mothers in Science recommendations into funding policies.

The NHMRC is also listed in the report among 25 examples of global good practice, for its work in introducing gender quotas in its allocation of leadership grants.

Beginning in January 2023, the NHMRC is introducing changes to its Investigator Grants scheme to address gender equity concerns. The changes will see the scheme award equal numbers of grants to women and men applicants at mid- and senior- career stages.

“We have introduced new special measures under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 to address systemic disadvantage faced by female and non-binary applicants to our Investigator Grant scheme,” a spokesperson for the NHMRC says.

The changes come after the council analysed its own data and found gender disparities in the scheme.

To support parents and caregivers, the NHMRC’s grant schemes enable applicants to outline factors and specific circumstances affecting their research track record, which assessors are required to take into account, the spokesperson says.

The organisation is also considering adopting a similar approach to the Australian Research Council in its treatment of maternity leave, such as an extension of eligibility periods by up to 2 years per dependent child, in consultation with its advisory committees, the spokesperson says.

Another local example of good work is the Australian Centre for Health Services Innovation which shortened grant applications to a 1200 word proposal focusing on the research, reducing preparation and peer review time.

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Women remain the minority among STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine) academics, with representation lower at senior levels the Australian Government’s Advancing Women in STEM Strategy shows. Women are also underrepresented in the STEM workforce generally, particularly in engineering and computer science and tend to be paid less than their male counterparts.

A Boston Consulting Group report commissioned by Australian advocacy group Chief Executive Women found women in STEM fields faced significant challenges including hostile work environments, pervasive gender bias, and lack of flexibility.

Mothers in Science say in the years after starting a family, new parents and particularly mothers, often encounter bias that limits their career progression

In a Nature article, co-founder and chief executive of Mothers in Science Isabel Torres says, “when we are talking about motherhood [and science], people see it as a private issue and tend to treat it as an individual problem,

“We’ve shown that it’s a structural problem. What we want now is for [funding agencies] to acknowledge the data and take accountability. Funding is fundamental for career progression in academia.”

Supporting the call to action are 17 organisations including the Association for Women in Science and 500 Women Scientists, along with the European Platform of Women Scientists.

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