The continuing challenges for women in STEMM

Senior levels of science are male dominated, but work is underway to restore the balance. Fiona McMillan reports.

In senior levels of science and technology, many women still encounter discrimination, both subtle and overt.
In senior levels of science and technology, many women still encounter discrimination, both subtle and overt.
Science Photo Library/Getty images

International Women’s Day, on March 8, is a global celebration of the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. It’s also an annual call to action on gender parity.

In light of this, what does the future look like for women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine, or STEMM for short?

After all, quite a lot is riding on the answer. Our ability to address a wide range of current and future challenges — in climate, resource sustainability, food security, and health to name a few — will require advances in STEMM fields, as well as the insight and strategies to effectively use that new knowledge.

We also know that in terms of the future job prospects, some of the most important skills are going to be those gained in mathematics, technology and science.

Thus, when scientific talent is underused or inadequately cultivated due to gender inequality, it presents a major challenge for women and for the future of STEMM.

To take soundings on the state of women in science in the run up to the big day, Cosmos spoke to Nalini Joshi, professor of mathematics Sydney University in New South Wales; Jenny Martin, director of Griffith Institute of Drug Design in Queensland; and Kylie Walker who heads Science and Technology Australia, an advocacy organisation representing 70,000 scientist and technologists.

So, where are we now?

“We know that at the most senior levels of leadership in STEMM in both in academia and in the private sector, only 17% of leaders are women,” says Walker.

This varies depending on the specific field, dipping as low as 8% in some disciplines, but it never gets much above 30%.

It’s an alarming figure given how many women enter STEMM fields in the first place.

Two, three, even four decades ago, while some STEMM disciplines attracted only a moderate number of women, this wasn’t the case across the board. Martin, for instance, remembers when she was a pharmacy undergraduate more than 30 years ago.

“There were as many women as men, and when I did my PhD there were also as many women as men,” she says.

However, when she began to reach more senior levels, that trend took a dive. She’d look around and think, “I seem to be the only one like me.”

Joshi, who was herself the first female mathematician to be appointed as professor at the University of Sydney, says you need to ask why so many women excel in science in their early years, yet so few are in top roles.

“People who are good enough to get university medals in mathematics, who are good enough to get scholarships to get PhDs, are not good enough to be professors?” she asks, rhetorically. “The obvious answer is of course they are good enough!”

The work-family juggle often gets blamed, she explains. But although we need to make sure there are structures in place for people with caring responsibilities, this isn’t the main issue.

“If you look at proportion of women who have had children versus the proportion of women who did not, the decline is the same,” she says.

According to Walker, women leaving STEMM often cite two major factors influencing their departure. The first is extreme career instability, which is a problem for everyone in the field, but has a disproportionate effect on women. The second is the discrimination – subtle and overt – that leaves many women feeling unwelcome and undermines their validation and recognition.

But things are changing. Government initiatives have helped increase the number of women who complete high school and tertiary studies in STEMM, leading to an increase in women taking subjects such as mathematics.

Retaining and cultivating that talent once in the workforce presents another challenge altogether, which is why a program that began in the UK 13 years ago is now playing an important role in the future women in STEMM careers in Australia.

The Athena SWAN program is a system that requires universities to find the information about women in their organisations, explains Martin.

In the UK, the program has helped identify common bottlenecks in career progression for women in STEMM, and led to action plans that seek to dismantle the blockages and break down structural discrimination associated with them.

Moreover, accreditation indicating an organisation’s positive action towards gender equity is now an eligibility requirement for some types of major research funding in the UK.

Inspired by this, in 2015 Joshi, Martin and a number of colleagues in STEMM initiated the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) pilot of the program here in Australia. Now, nearly every major employer of scientists in the country is signed up.

“The advantage of the Athena SWAN program is that it doesn’t let people off the hook,” explains Joshi, who has played a leading role in the pilot. “It forces an organisation to look into its own workforce in terms of data.”

This requirement for metrics and thorough analysis, including identifying gaps in the data and then finding ways to get it, promotes significant self-reflection within organisations, she says.

“That self-reflection was missing all these years,” she notes.

Martin is pleased to see how it is shifting the conversation.

“We’re now talking about the barriers — the institutional, organisational, societal barriers — for women to progress or proceed in science,” she says. “In the past, they’ve not been discussed.”

There’s a long way to go, of course. The changes being sought aren’t going to happen overnight, but Joshi, Martin and Walker are all very optimistic that it’s going to have a big impact for women in STEMM in Australia.

Walker adds that there are also a range of complementary initiatives, such as STA’s Superstars of STEM, that provide mentors and role models for young women just starting their careers.

“There are so many extraordinary people – both women and men – who are very passionately dedicated to improving gender equity in STEMM and are proactively making sure there are structures, support, networks and chains of mentoring in place to help,” she says.

Martin points out that welcoming more women into the sector is not just a good outcome for women: “What has been found [in the UK] is that the changes they bring in to make things better for women actually make things better for everyone.”

She adds that there’s another extremely important benefit in promoting diversity in this sector.

“Diverse teams have been shown again and again to be much better at problem-solving and team decision-making than teams that are mono-dispersed, shall we say,” she observes.

In other words, this is going to have a very positive effect on STEMM itself, and that is good news for all of us.

Hits and memories in the herstory of science

As part of its ongoing celebration of women in STEMM, Cosmos has compiled some of its most inspiring stories about female scientists, past, present and future. You can find them here.

Explore #Women in STEM
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Fiona McMillan a science communicator with a background in in physics, biophysics, and structural biology. She was awarded runner up for the 2016 Bragg UNSW Press Prize for Science Writing.
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