Jenny Graves on women in science

You know how impossible it is to explain to a toddler that we are only 10 minutes into a six-hour journey?
I had the same problem last week, when well-intentioned interviewers asked whether the first award of the Prime Minister's Prize for Science to a solo woman signalled the end of our long struggle for equality.
How to explain that it's a long trip and we've barely begun?

I've spent much of my working life on committees for women in science: local committees; Australian committees; international committees.

We have written many reports on why there were so few women in the senior echelons of science. They all said the same thing – women can be just as effective in science as men.

Enrolments in science are almost equal. But there is a leaky pipeline. Women get science degrees, but drop out progressively until there are few left. It's the same curve all over the world, although it starts and ends much lower in some countries than in Australia.

The reports list many reasons for the leakiness, some to do with discrimination, some with confidence levels, but many to do with the practicalities of forging a career in science.

One stands out: having a family, caring for young children.

Reports over three decades reiterate the same factors. So please, no more reports. We know the problems. Now, can we solve them?

We are definitely seeing changes: women professors, women speakers, female role models and mentors.

But many young women I meet in science have trouble relating to successful female "role models", thinking they must have been child prodigies who effortlessly ascended a stairway to heaven. "My life's not like that ..." they think.

Nobody's life is. There are always twists and turns, accidents and adventures that lead us into our careers in science.

They should hear the real stories. In fact, I once wrote a "reality CV", in which I confessed my pathetic lack of ambition as a student and the slow dawning of purpose.

I recounted how I survived the constant subtle put-downs, and conquered my abject terror at performing (by redefining it as "excitement"). How a series of rash choices and non-decisions drove me to Berkeley and a PhD. Maybe other successful women could share their doubts and struggles.

Young women often ask me, "What is the best time to have a baby?" I sigh. There is no good time to have a baby. Clashing priorities during you PhD, working like a maniac as a post-doc to secure a permanent job.

Then going nuts as a young staff member trying to juggle responsibilities to students and family, while building up your lab.

"Just have your baby and muddle through like the rest of us," I advise before recounting stories of colliding worlds.

Forgetting to drop off the baby as I rushed to deliver a nine o'clock lecture. Leaving with frozen samples that took me all day to extract, then forgetting to take them to the airport in my rush to pick up my daughter.

Losing the car keys and discovering them weeks later in the freezer. We all go crazy; you just have to laugh.

The qualities you need to survive? Perseverance and a sense of humour.

So how are we doing now? The pipe still leaks. It leaks later; attrition is delayed even past post-doc experience. But change is depressingly slow.

I think we have taken the first, but crucial step. There has been a really tangible change in attitude in the last 10 years or so. No more eye-rolling when the subject is raised. Serious concern for the recalcitrant sex bias.

What needs to be done now is to address the practicalities, particularly for women with career breaks.

It isn't that hard. My suggestions are simple and not as expensive as losing half our trained workforce. Some technical help during leave to continue long-term experiments.

Provision to keep women in touch with her science, such as childcare while she attends lab meetings and journal clubs. Better provisions for return to work. Permanent part-time positions (with part-time responsibilities; no working full-time for half the pay). And most obviously good and available childcare, preferably within the institution.

It is heart warming to see the enthusiastic uptake of the SAGE program (Science in Australia Gender Equity), modelled on the British Athena Swan program and organised by the Australian Academy of Science in partnership with the Academy of Technology and Engineering. SAGE encourages institutions to look at their procedures, improve them, and measure the outcome.

But really I think we are going to see permanent, stable equality only when work practices change for both men and women. A shorter formal work week – there aren't enough jobs anyway – permanent part-time positions with flexibility for everyone, more working electronically from home.

That is, equality might mean changes for men as well as women in science.

This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review.

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