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Australia's got scientific female talent - here's how to stop wasting it

30 March 2016
A new initiative to promote women to senior positions in science

Nalini Joshi, the first female professor of mathematics ever appointed at the University of Sydney, addressed the National Press Club about Australia's scientific female talent.

Professor Nalini Joshi, Georgina Sweet Australian Laureate Fellow in mathematics at the University of Sydney. 

As a young woman Nalini Joshi discovered the solution to an 88-year-old mathematics problem. She went on to become the first female professor of mathematics ever appointed at the University of Sydney and the third ever elected to the Australian Academy of Science.

But as Professor Joshi outlined in her address to the National Press Club today her achievement in rising to such high positions still makes her an exception among women scientists.

Only nine percent of maths sciences professors in Australia are women.  In the natural and physical science that figure is about 14 percent. This is despite the fact that in those same sciences fifty percent of PhD students are female and 60 percent of lecturers, the entry point of many academic careers, are women.

It doesn’t take a mathematician to spot that there is something wrong with those numbers. Professor Joshi laments that Australia can throw away such a pool of talent, wasting their drive, intelligence and years of education.

She likens it to the era of the 1940s and ‘50s when women such as Ruby Payne-Scott, a pioneer of radio astromony (and alumna of the University), was pushed out of public service because of legislation prohibiting the employment of married women.

The culture in scientific research organisations still resembles a feudal monastery Professor Joshi observes, with strict control of powerful information and of status. 

To try to address this situation the Australian Academy of Science and Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering are mounting a two-year pilot of a program created in Britain to address gender inequality.

Already 25 universities, five medical research institutes and two publicly-funded research agencies have signed up to participate in the pilot of the Athena SWANN program, including the University of Sydney.

The program is part of Australia’s Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) initiative.

The key steps to successful participation are:

  • Carry out a nuanced data analysis of the situation including calculations such as how long a period qualified female staff have waited before being promoted
  • Reflect on where the holes are - such as whether there are disciplinary areas that have never appointed a senior woman or perform well behind the national standard
  • Propose an action plan to address these holes reflecting on behavior, communication and culture

The expectation is that this initiative will transition into a longer term program to be managed by a national not-for-profit company.

(L-R) Professors Nalini Joshi, Jean Yang, Jacqui Ramagge and Mary Myerscough. The University of Sydney is leading the way with female mathematics professors, with the appointment of Professor Ramagge as Head of School and promotions for Professors Myerscough and Yang this year.

 

The expectation is that this initiative will transition into a longer term program to be managed by a national not-for-profit company.

Professor Joshi’s hope is that initiatives such as these will stop the costly and unnecessary loss of talent currently taking place in Australia. She dreams that stemming that tide could one day see Australia double its pool of Nobel Prize winners.

Professor Joshi is the Georgina Sweet Australian Laureate Fellow in mathematics at the University of Sydney, Chair of the National Committee for Mathematical Sciences and Co-Chair of the SAGE Initiative.

She will appear at the National Press Club with Emma Johnston, Professor of Marine Ecology and Ecotoxicology at the University of New South Wales and Professor Tanya Monro, Deputy Vice Chancellor of Research and Innovation at the University of South Australia.

The University of Sydney is the first university in NSW to announce a requirement for year 12 students to have completed at least two-unit mathematics for admission to 62 of its courses. The changes will apply from 2019.