Australia's universities are upping the ante when it comes to attracting more women to science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medical (STEMM) careers.
Not only do they want to see an equal gender balance in their faculties, they want to implement strategies to ensure female staff members aren’t forced out as they progress through their careers.
The Australian Academy of Sciences has started the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) program to help institutions achieve this balance.
Already 40 universities, medical research institutes and government science organisations have signed up.
SAGE executive director Wafa El-Adhami told SBS News the organisation had just finished a survey of people working in STEMM institutes around Australia.
The results will inform the best strategies for SAGE to promote to its members.
“SAGE will help to identify data, which is really important to identify strategies,” Professor El-Adhami said.
“We really want to make sure it’s not just about the recommendations, it’s also about support measures.”
Female only recruitment
The University of Melbourne, a SAGE member, is one institution that has already taken steps down the road to improving its gender equity.
The school of mathematics and statistics last year decided to advertise three academic roles as female only.
The former head of the school, Aleks Owczarek, now the deputy dean of science, told SBS News the process had been extremely successful, attracting female applicants from around the world.
“There were just over 120 applicants for three positions and in November we interviewed 17 of those applicants,” he said.
“We were so impressed with the applicants we actually appointed four and we’ve got one more in on-going discussions and that’s not concluded so we hope to obtain five.
“It’s one thing bringing someone in, it’s another to maintain them and support them and make sure they stay in the organisation.” - Professor Wafa El-Adhami
“In that sense it’s going much better than we could have even hoped for. It was quite a stellar cast that came.”
Professor Owczarek said an added bonus of the female-only hiring process was the reputational benefits for the university.
“The applicants, when we spoke to them, were very impressed with the initiative we’d taken and I got the impression some had applied because of the type of initiative we had taken as it spoke to the environment to which they would come,” he said.
But attracting applicants is only half the battle, Professor El-Adhami says.
“It’s one thing bringing someone in, it’s another to maintain them and support them and make sure they stay in the organisation,” she said.
SAGE’s strategies will not only address recruitment of more female employees, but will also give suggestions for how to ensure women don’t feel like they need to leave STEMM, Professor El-Adhami said.
Women face significant challenges
Marguerite Evans-Galea, the co-founder of Women in Science and executive director of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering’s Industry Mentoring Network in STEMM said women often faced significant challenges to furthering their career in STEMM industries.
These challenges were particularly related to any breaks in their career - to have children or care for relatives for example.
“If you look at grants, women are immediately disadvantaged by any kind of caring interruption like having a child or caring,” Dr Evans-Galea said.
“Women immediately lose that ability to apply for grants.”
Dr Evans-Galea said women were often forced to explain for the rest of their careers - when applying for a grant or a position - why there was a gap in their work history .
“It can be quite confronting, we’ve had a number of women say, and it can be for a really personal reason that you’ve had that caring interruption,” she said.
She was sacked from her position in a United States university just minutes after telling her male supervisor she was pregnant.
She said while this sort of event would be unlikely to happen these days, women returning from long-term leave could still be told there was no place for them for reason of grants or funding, for instance, leaving them with little choice but to leave the industry.
“Women are less likely to apply for a job they’re equally qualified for than men." - Professor Tom Welton
At the University of Melbourne it’s hoped the new female mathematics academics and the improved gender balance will change the culture within the school and attract more female students to study there.
“Those academics will hopefully be providing role models and mentoring themselves once they’re embedded here,” Professor Owczarek said.
He said there was wide spread support for the female-only hiring strategy throughout the university and the heads of other departments were keen to replicate the process themselves.
If gender imbalance continued to be a problem in the department, Professor Owczarek did not rule out employing the strategy again.
Worldwide gender balance problem
The gender diversity problem is not confined to Australia. It can be seen in universities and research centres around the world and research shows the reasons are very similar.
Tom Welton, the dean of natural sciences at Imperial College in London, has spearheaded his department’s response to gender imbalance.
He said a combination of different strategies had allowed for a more diverse, productive and successful department, which was awarded the coveted gold award under the UK’s Athena SWAN gender equity accreditation program.
A key factor in achieving this result was a policy of actively seeking out both men and women who would be suitable for advertised positions as well as taking applications in the usual way.
“Women are less likely to apply for a job they’re equally qualified for than men, they’re more reticent then men,” Professor Welton told SBS News.
“We go through a list of anybody who is qualified to be an applicant for a particular role [and encourage them to apply].
“We do the selection in the same way we’ve always done, we do the interviews and appoint the best person on the day.”
Professor Welton said this approach had seen a very high level of candidate apply for every job and resulted in the department being able to hire the best available people and attract more funding and research grants.
Tackling unconscious bias
Targeted mentoring and actively seeking out the best people for promotion was also part of Professor Welton's diversity strategy, as well as tackling unconscious bias that might keep, not only women, but people of colour out of academia.
“I have never met a woman who has said anything other than she would be very uncomfortable if she got a job just because she was a woman, but statistics tell us plenty of men got their jobs just because they were men,” Professor Welton said.
“The loss of privilege feels difficult, but the loss of privilege is not the same as being disadvantaged, and that is what they’re trying to do, we’re trying to find a way to work where we are truly meritocratic.”
Dr Evans-Galea said unconscious bias was a big problem in Australia as well.
“If you’ve got a leadership team mostly made up of men who are defining what makes a good scientist, their views will filter through,” Dr Evans-Galea said.
“The loss of privilege feels difficult, but the loss of privilege is not the same as being disadvantaged." - Professor Tom Welton
“If you have a committee where 90 per cent is male it goes without saying decisions made will be gender biased, that’s just the facts.”
She said programs like SAGE were particularly important when it came to changing the culture of STEMM workplaces and leadership teams.
“It has to be from the top, if the leaders aren’t behind it, it is much, much harder to push through,” she said.
“When women succeed we all succeed. If you strengthen the women in every organisation it strengthens the organisation.”
Professor Welton agreed there was still plenty of work left to do to build and maintain gender diversity in STEMM industries.
“In reality we’re all just starting to really wake up to the need to improve our diversity,” he said.
“We’re still right at the beginning and people don’t yet know what works and what doesn’t work. What will happen over the next few years is we’ll learn which of those [strategies] are effective, which are making a difference and [we will] decide which are going to take us forward.”