While universities and businesses still find it challenging to attract more women to science and technology, there are many initiatives trying to address this and combat the gender disparity.
A husband and wife, both heads of laboratories, attend a conference.
Upon meeting the couple, other people are quick to congratulate the man for becoming a lab head at a such a young age. Then they turn to the woman.
‘So, are you a post-doctorate student?’
While it’s not an intentional slight, assumptions such as this are symptomatic of a deeper issue: the underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).
That’s why La Trobe microbiologist, Jen Wood, and fellow PhD student Lara Bereza-Malcolm started a group called Supporting Women in Science (SWIS). They want to help address the retention issue of female scientists, from PhD students to early-career researchers and up.
‘I was really lucky in the field that I study – biology and microbiology – there’s a lot of women, and we’re surrounded by lot of really strong female role models at La Trobe,’ says Jen.
‘So, I didn’t realise there was an issue until I started going to conferences and hearing about all the difficulties the female early-career researchers were having, such as feeling like they were being passed over at job interviews.
‘We also had people from areas like mathematics, where even though the department’s really supportive, it’s male dominated and they feel a bit isolated.’
An ongoing issue
Women make up only a quarter of the STEM workforce in Australia.
While it’s true that in 2015 women only made up a quarter of information technology graduates and less than a tenth of engineering graduates, women were actually in the majority in some other STEM fields.
‘My classes and PhD students are often roughly evenly male and female, so I think it’s more a problem of retention these days,’ says Dr Belinda Abbott, a Senior Lecturer at La Trobe in the College of Science, Health and Engineering.
She didn’t notice a significant gender gap when she was doing her degree either. At least, not among the students.
‘When I was an undergraduate, all the academics were male. But my cohort of people going through the chemistry major was about 50/50, so we thought it was a generational thing.
‘Then suddenly after post-doc level you start to see women drop out of the system, and that continues as you go up in seniority. If you took all the students, PhDs and post-docs out of the room at conferences, it would go from equal gender to nearly all male.
‘Some people still think it’s about encouraging girls into science, but I think the Athena SWAN Program is highlighting the job doesn’t end there.’
Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) is a gender equality accreditation program that’s helping raise awareness of the underrepresentation of women in STEM industries.
‘I would definitely say that in the four years I’ve been doing my PhD, people have gone from not thinking about this to being really aware,’ says Wood.
‘If there’s an all-male panel discussion at a conference now, someone will tweet that. So people are starting to police the gender and equity diversity, which is a positive thing.’
The pressures of family life
As the mother of two young children, Dr Abbott says she was naive about how having a family would impact her career.
‘I thought, “I’m going to have this much maternity leave and then I’ll come back part-time and it’ll all just work out.” But the reality was somewhat different.
‘Before I had kids, I thought I was busy and tired – but now I know what busy and tired are. You can’t do as much in the hours you’ve got, and there’s all the same stress and expectations on you whether you’re full-time or part-time.
‘My experience has also shown me that it’s very hard to do parenting equally – someone’s career has to give. Society still expects that women will be the primary carers,’ she says.
Jen Wood has come across the same issue through her work with SWIS.
‘We have this idea that women are forced into the caring position, and they cite that as a reason that we lose so many from science particularly,’ she says.
‘But when we started doing the SWIS group, I met a lot of guys who felt they weren’t really permitted to take up carer responsibilities. Their boss looked at them sideways when they said, “We need to arrange my working hours so I can leave early to pick up the kids.”
‘So even when your partner does want to be involved and help, there’s this attitude that that’s not what guys do.’
Building better support networks
So, what can we do to make things easier for women in STEM?
‘A really obvious thing is to have flexible working arrangements for women and make them aware that this is a possibility,’ says Jen. ‘And institutions should be encouraging men to use flexible working arrangements, too.
‘The other thing, which is often quite contentious, is the idea of gender targets. But unconscious bias is a real thing, and the only way to undo it is to equalise the diversity of the people doing the hiring.’
Dr Abbott says the transition to motherhood would have been easier if she’d had someone to tell her what to expect.
‘I hope the Athena SWAN project looks at better ways to mentor women through having children and parenting, because it’s such a female characteristic that you can’t be seen to be struggling.
‘You just put your head down and tail up and get on with it. We need to learn that it’s okay to ask for support.
‘We need to make sure women think STEM careers are worth pursuing, because even though science can be challenging, it’s incredibly rewarding.
‘Then again, nothing that’s worthwhile is easy, is it?’
Read about how La Trobe is supporting the next generation of female engineers.