A beacon of hope for gender equity in science


Imagine a world where universities and research institutions compete with each other to be the best at supporting the career progression of women.

Where universities will not be able to apply for major research funding unless they can demonstrate they’ve made progress in addressing the gender inequity in science that still exists despite the massive leaps towards real gender equity in the past century.

The notion may sound idealistic but a move to make this a reality in Australia is already well underway.

One scientist who is particularly determined for women in science to be offered equal opportunities to their male peers is Professor Jenny Martin, Director of the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery (GRIDD) in Brisbane, Queensland.

She explains that she is passionate about finding a solution to what she calls a “wicked problem” in science and academia – the higher attrition of women relative to men – because she has lived it.

Professor Martin recalls that when she was an undergraduate her female peers scored more academic prizes than her male counterparts – they were clearly bright enough to achieve.

Yet three decades later Professor Martin frequently finds herself the only female sitting on the boards of decision-making committees.

Where have all the women gone?

It’s an issue that she finds concerning given the amount of big problems we need to solve in this world.

“We’re not going to solve the world’s problems if everyone sitting around the table making the decisions has the same life experiences and the same background,” she told the limbic in an interview just before she delivered the prestigious Wunderly Oration at this year’s Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand congress in Canberra.

She explains that we question women more because we don’t expect to see them in leadership positions.

“When we see a woman taking charge we question it more, when we see a man taking charge we accept their credentials without question,” she says.

Women are probed more, expected to justify their achievements more, and subsequently they question themselves more, she says.

“That leads to the situation we have at the moment where in academia we still have more women than men at undergraduate level and less than one in five professors are women,” she says.

“That’s not good enough because it means we are missing out on half of our best talent – we all need to do something about that.”

Professor Martin reflects on the fact that when she first started out in her academic career she didn’t feel brave enough to tackle the issue of gender equity head on.

After all, her seniors were men who she relied on for opportunities, support and career advancement.

It was when she was awarded an inaugural ARC Laureate fellowship in 2009 that she felt she had finally arrived at a place where she could lobby for change and make a difference.

“I had got to the place where it didn’t matter anymore if speaking out would affect my career – I felt very strongly that I wanted to change the system for those coming after me,” she said.

It’s hard to fix something you can’t see

But how is it possible to solve a problem that is so ingrained within our society, where do we even begin?

Like a lot of issues, the first step towards solving gender inequity is to recognise there’s a problem.

This sounds simple, but as Professor Martin explains, we are often not aware of our biases because we are all subject to our lived experiences right from the day we are born.

“It’s no longer fit for purpose – we don’t live in a patriarchal society anymore yet we still live with the vestiges of that obsolete system because of our unconscious biases,” she says.

She gives a poignant example of a Harvard study published in the journal PNAS in 2012 that gave two versions of a postgraduate resume to professors (women and men) in the US who were asked to assess the suitability of the candidate for a laboratory manager role.

Each resume had exactly the same details except that one had the name ‘Jennifer’ and the other ‘John’.

Alarmingly, Jennifer’s resume was on average rated 15% lower than John’s for competence, and hireability. She was also offered $4000 less pay and less support than John.

The University Olympics

In order to truly overcome the issue of gender inequity we need an evidence-based process that recognises those universities and institutions that are the best at supporting the progression of women, says Professor Martin.

A charter in the UK called Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) is achieving this by recognising and celebrating good practice towards the advancement of gender equality in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM).

Running now for over a decade its mantra is “representation, progression and success for all”.

As part of the program, universities and research institutions and departments have the opportunity to gain a bronze, silver or gold award.

Bronze is the entry-level award that signifies a commitment to change. Silver awards recognise those universities or organisations who have evidence to show they’ve changed and a gold award means you’re a beacon that everyone else should follow, explains Professor Martin.

According to Professor Martin the great thing about Athena SWAN is that participating institutions are required to show evidence that they’ve made change happen.

“It’s not a box ticking exercise on whether you’ve got policies in place or not, it is about real progress, what are you doing, how are you doing it, and how is change happening,” she says.

In July 2011 in a massive boost to the program the UK’s Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies announced that from 2015 onwards medical research departments must hold a silver award to be eligible for major research funding.

“In the UK it’s now used as a badge of quality because it means that if you have silver award not only can you apply for major funding but you can also use it as a recruitment tool to attract candidates,” says Professor Martin.

Get ready Australia

Together with co-chairs Nobel Laureate Prof Brian Schmidt and ARC Laureate Professor Nalini Joshi and several others from around Australia Professor Martin is a founding member of the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) Steering Committee.

Established through the support of the Australian Academy of Science, SAGE is now an independent organisation supported by multiple scientific organisations.

In 2014 during a forum to address the issue SAGE agreed to implement a pilot of the UK Athena SWAN charter, which started in September last year.

The response to the pilot, run by SAGE and advised by an Expert Advisory Group led by former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick AO, has been overwhelming.

Professor Martin said that the Steering Committee had hoped to get 12 institutions to sign up to the pilot, but the fact that 32 organisations put their hand up to initial expressions of interest was beyond their wildest dreams.

This number quickly burgeoned to 40 universities and institutions after the Federal Government committed additional funding to the program.

“I think Australia was absolutely ready for this to happen,” says Professor Martin.

“The idea is not that we’re trying to change the world so that women take charge. The idea is that everybody has opportunity to succeed in whatever they choose to do – whether that be taking care or taking charge”.

“Equality is a basic human right not a privilege”.

Some institutions are already getting it right

To suggest all Australian research institutes and organisations are dragging the chain when it comes to equal opportunity would be unfair.

Take the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute as an example. Head of the organisation, Professor Doug Hilton spoke to the limbic last year after he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia as part of the 2016 Queen’s Birthday Honours List.

He received the award for his staunch commitment to gender equity in science. It was this passion he took into the institute when he took up the reins eight years ago.

When he arrived, there was not a single female professor holding a leadership position. Under his direction this has risen to 25% of these roles, but Professor Hilton said he was determined to push on.

“That’s not enough, but we’re walking down the track,” he told the limbic. “It signals to women that even though there are challenges for combining research and family, it is possible to thrive professionally and have a rich family life.”

Branding gender inequity as ‘indecent’ and akin to ‘racism’, he said there was also a productivity issue that had to be considered in the scientific community.

“The community expects us to make discoveries that affect healthcare and if we are only tapping into half of the talent pool we are not doing our job properly,” he said.

“Everyone looks at the world differently and we want to be able to draw on all the talent we have, whether they are men or women.”

And it’s not all talk. The institute is investing in a multi-million dollar 90-place onsite early childhood education and care centre to help families working there. Mothers working at the centre will be given placement priority for their children when it opens in 2018.

“That’s a small investment but what it says to the woman is that we are proud of you and we value your efforts,” he said.

In December last year the Victorian Government kicked in a $650,000 grant towards the centre. Associate Professor Marnie Blewitt, co-chair of the institute’s Gender Equity Committee, said access to childcare had been identified as one of the biggest obstacles facing women’s career development, particularly in medical research.

“The Institute’s commitment to the new Early Childhood Education and Care facility is particularly important in providing additional support for working women with family responsibilities to continue their careers,” she said.

“Addressing this issue and taking action to redress gender imbalance will ultimately lead to more discoveries that will improve health outcomes in Australia and globally.”

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