• Left to right: Prof Tamara Davis, Dr Alan Finkel, and Prof Emma Johnston on ABC's Q&A, 14 March 2016. (ABC)Source: ABC
Monday’s Q&A panel touched on a problem in Australian research - women are getting out of STEM fields at concerning rates.
Leigh Nicholson

16 Mar 2016 - 12:58 PM  UPDATED 16 Mar 2016 - 12:58 PM

On Monday night’s special science edition of ABC’s Q&A program the panel was stacked with accomplished scientists. Three of them were women, who all brought to fore a concerning fact that’s recently been gaining attention in Australia - women are starting off in STEM-related degrees, but they’re just not sticking around.

Women make up just over half of STEM PhDs awarded in Australia, which is obviously an incredibly encouraging statistic.

But somehow along the way something has gone wrong - Prof Emma Johnston, a marine ecologist and science communicator, pointed out that she is “only one of 17% of professors in Australia who are women.”

So, how exactly does half the PhD graduates suddenly turn into less than a fifth once you peer down the career trajectory?

Judged for publication output

On Monday night Upulie Divisekera, molecular biologist and co-founder of the immensely popular curation twitter account @RealScientists, suggested some possible reasons for this depressing quit rate of Aussie female researchers, one being that if a woman takes time off from a postgraduate position, it can be particularly harmful to their career in a way that’s almost unique to science.

“You’re judged by your publication and your research output and once you take time off… it’s very difficult to get back into it,” says Divisekera.

While there is likely a list of reasons to explain this drop-off – such as workplace culture, inadequate maternity and paternity leave, societal pressure still resting on the woman in a heterosexual partnership to be the one to take time off – the conclusion is still pretty clear.

Australia has a plethora of interested and dedicated women wanting to pursue scientific research, but something in-between obtaining a PhD and higher level qualifications is pushing them out.

Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel attempted to interject the panel discussion with a positive appreciation of the progress made in this area, using Monash University as an example. Dr Finkel noted that in ten years, senior positions held by women have increased from around 20% to 30%. However, Johnston pointed out that, unfortunately, Monash is the exception, not the rule. And while slow progress is still progress, it just isn’t good enough.

Tediously slow improvement

Even if these changes are still part of an improvement, albeit a monstrously slow one, the waiting period for numbers and support to pick up still have consequences, influencing our ability to change the trajectory of women’s careers in science.

When girls and young women don’t envision themselves in positions past PhDs or postgraduates, or don’t have anyone in their workplace to seek advice from, this undoubtedly leads to some reconsidering of what they can achieve.

Divisekera, Johnston and third female panelist, cosmologist Prof Tamara Davis are all fantastic examples of women in their fields doing great work, but the ideal endpoint for all of this is precisely when these women stop being labeled as anomalies.

What statistics are telling us is that the interest is there, but the culture and the structure are letting women down. And while STEM is not the only area affected by this, thankfully it is one which is increasingly being noticed.

The National Innovation and Science Agenda is investing $13 million to encourage a change in this exact area, such as mentoring programs and to support existing ones like the SAGE pilot.

These implementations are a good start, but realistically there comes a time when these kinds of strategies need the more local and nuanced approach of changing a workplace’s culture, something that is not done by those pushed out, but by the people doing the pushing.

For this to happen, those in positions of power need to do an ugly interrogation of themselves, and unfortunately this is something no amount of mentoring programs can achieve alone.

In the meantime, Johnston did have a word of advice for those who felt discouraged by the lack of representation.

“I think the thing to hold onto is how much you enjoy the actual research and that structured enquiry and finding data and working things out, because that’s what will get you through some of the tougher times while we change the structure and the culture.”

Leigh Nicholson is a PhD candidate in cellular and reproductive biology at the University of Sydney. You can follow her on Twitter at @smeighfickelson.

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