Science needs more women

11 April 2013

At the very highest ranks of Australian research the gender situation is nothing short of dreadful, says Professor Bryan Gaensler (second right).
At the very highest ranks of Australian research the gender situation is nothing short of dreadful, says Professor Bryan Gaensler (second right).

Scientists strive always to be fair and impartial in their research. But there's one aspect of our work that is rife with bias and subjectivity. The issue is not our experiments or our publications but our gender distribution, which in most fields remains staunchly and overwhelmingly male.

The first-year university students of 2013 are assured that things are better now, that the gender balance of the people in their lecture theatre is healthy, and that it will simply take time for these numbers to propagate their way up to more senior levels. But the classes of 2003 and 1993 were told the same thing, and very little has changed.

At the very highest ranks of Australian research, the situation is nothing short of dreadful.

In 2012, just 22 women applied for Australian Laureate Fellowships, and excluding the two Laureate Fellowships reserved only for women, just two of these 22 female applicants were successful. At CSIRO, just 12 percent of senior scientists are women. And amongst the 20 new Fellows elected to the Australian Academy of Science in 2013, the number of women was… zero.

The figures could be better, but does it matter? There are lots of other careers where women dominate, so maybe science and research are just not women's thing?

This view needs to be firmly rejected on three fronts.

First, there are robust studies that show that the performance of a research team improves when there is a larger proportion of women.

Second, it is a terrible waste of the public funds spent on undergraduate education if we don't expect most female students to actually use their training.

Most crucially, some of the reasons why this imbalance exists are insidious, and need to be eliminated from the workplace.

The lack of women in science is a complex issue with many causes. But the immediate thing we can do is to focus on the young women who have already begun careers in science, and find ways to keep them there.

Above all, we need to accept that "gender neutral" is not the same thing as "gender equitable". The professor who is condescending and dismissive of the "girls" in his lab is hopefully a fading stereotype, but it is not enough to replace him with a new group of senior scientists who simply try to treat everyone equally.

The imbalances that confront us will not wondrously vanish once outright discrimination ends, but are far subtler.

The only path to a fair and productive workplace is through a conscious, communal, decision to be proactive, responsive, and above all, flexible.

There are surprisingly simple approaches that all research institutes can take.

The ongoing challenge for many female scientists is to stay in the game during that hectic decade when one is trying to make the transition from contract staff to permanent employee, from team member to team leader, from junior researcher to senior authority figure. Inevitably, this is the same point in one's life where one often decides to start a family. Many women (and men) understandably conclude that there simply isn't enough time and energy to simultaneously raise children and ascend the scientific food chain, and so make the decision to put their family first.

To combat this seemingly inevitable leaky pipeline, there are many tangible things we could be doing right now, and which don't require us to completely shake up the system.

At the level of individual groups or laboratories, directors and managers need to make the simple decision to advertise every research position with a part-time option. Many people who had walked away from academia or had given up on a scientific career will return, and one often might attract two excellent part-time people instead of one full-time hire.

At the level of institutes and universities, those treasured academic and continuing positions need to accompanied by some carrots and sticks: interviews should not be allowed to proceed unless there are some appointable (not just token) women on the shortlist, and a department should be allowed to make two appointments if there are two outstanding candidates and one of them is female.

And at the national level, our funding agencies can do far better. Rather than ask applicants to set out their track record but then essentially force them to apologise for their career interruptions, we need to let researchers play to their strengths. For example, applicants should be able to choose for each funding round whether they want their grant to be assessed mainly on past performance or on the quality of their proposed research program.

The bottom line is that many excellent female researchers across Australia do not encounter a set of sequential career rungs to be climbed, but rather need to navigate a complex game of snakes-and-ladders.

Rather than wringing our hands at the injustice or asserting that things are slowly getting better, we need to be more flexible and creative in the way we form teams and advance knowledge.

Professor Bryan Gaensler is Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics at the University of Sydney. Follow him on Twitter @SciBry

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