Investing in Women in STEMM
Victoria is rapidly developing a name for itself as a leader in medical and clinical research, exemplified during the COVID-19 pandemic, with prominent researchers taking the global stage. The pandemic highlighted and exacerbated gender disparity within medical research, where there is a historical, and continuing, lack of representation of women. In recent years, there has been a growth amongst broad stakeholders investing in gender equity initiatives to achieve a diverse and equitable research and innovation landscape for Victoria to remain internationally competitive.
In 2022, Research.com analysts created a list of the world’s best women scientists1 to counteract the Matilda effect2 and bring attention to ongoing gender bias and misrepresentation by promoting the achievements of women in science. The women were chosen based on their publication and citation numbers as well as the impact that they have on others. Of all the women selected, 36 were Australian, with 14 from Victoria. One eminent Victorian on the list, Prof Sharon Lewin, the inaugural Director of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, was instrumental in directing COVID-19 research and its dissemination to the public3. In 2020, she was duly awarded the Committee for Melbourne’s highest honour, the Melbourne Achiever Award, which honours Melburnians who have made significant contributions to the city that will have a lasting impact.
Recognition of women researcher scientific excellence can create role models and provide opportunities. The award of the 2017 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science4 to its first female recipient, Prof Jenny Graves AO, drew recognition of her as a scientist and champion of change in gender equality. This award brought recognition of excellence by a female scientist to the public. Yet, despite the increasing visibility and recognition of women researchers in the public forum, the scientific field as a whole, remains a deeply unequal field of education and research. As of 2021, despite the relatively high number of STEM graduates, women were less likely than men to consider a technical career5 resulting in only 33% of scientists being women6.
Bias and stereotyping shape girls’ views of STEMM from as early as primary school. While girls comprise over 50% of enrolments in science subjects, in year 12 boys outnumber girls three-to-one in Physics and almost two-to-one in Advanced Mathematics7. Underrepresentation continues in Information and Communications Technology and Design Technology, with girls making up just 26% of students – a trend that continues at the tertiary level, with women representing only 15% of domestic engineering undergraduate course completions. The successful Trades Fit Expo8, to be held again in 2023, provides the opportunity for female and non-binary students in Years 9-12 to explore careers in STEMM, especially in those traditionally held male-dominated fields, to provide exciting new career opportunities, and to help break the perceptions of gendered professional roles.
At the core of the gendered imbalance is systemic bias, encompassing broad factors including gender bias, unconscious bias, harassment, and social norms, found both within education and the workplace, and which make it difficult to attract and retain women in STEMM careers. In academia, women remain underrepresented among senior scientists, with studies showing they are awarded less research grant funding than men9 and stand less chance of being promoted. Many Victorian universities and medical research institutes (MRIs) are starting to invest in initiatives to promote gender equity and reduce the attrition of women with increasing seniority and leadership capabilities. Within the Melbourne Biomedical Precinct, The Walter Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) has been investing in initiatives such as the development of a gender equity plan10 to have family friendly meeting times and equal representation of women and men presenting at Institute symposia, and was the first MRI in Australia to establish its own onsite early learning centre. Demonstrating the growing commitment of research to Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) in Victoria, WEHI, along with the University of Melbourne,Monash University, and nine other Victorian universities and MRIs, were recipients of the Athena Swan Bronze Award from SAGE11, a charter with 10 key principles organisations must follow to address gender equity. Women scientists employed in Athena Swan accredited organisations have experienced greater career satisfaction, fairness in workload and increased opportunities.
There are growing demands for comparable statistics on the representation of women in STEMM as many explanations for the gender imbalances rely on anecdotal evidence. One such group, Women in Science Parkville Precinct (WiSPP)12, developed an agreed set of metrics to share and gather information. This baseline data was established, and confirmed that women are still underrepresented at senior levels. WiSPP work as a grassroots collective, led by early and mid-career researchers (EMCRs) working in partnership to drive organisational cultural change. Recognised by the Victorian Government that full utilisation of the medical research sector workforce was key to post pandemic economic recovery, WiSPP received seed funding to form the Equity in Medical Research Alliance, which led advocacy efforts to support those at risk during the pandemic13, EMCR women.
A recent COVID-19 impact survey by the Australian Academy of Science’s Early and Mid-Career Researcher (EMCR) forum14 illustrated that female EMCR’S with carer responsibilities reported the highest level of detrimental career impacts and mental stress. This was as a consequence of the juggling act created by an accumulative full year of home-schooling, extended work hours, increased pastoral care, disturbed work time, and job/financial insecurity through part-time employment. To retain women in STEMM, the Victorian Endowment for Science, Knowledge and Innovation (veski)15 has created the veski inspiring women program including fellowships16, career recovery grants17, and bridging the funding gap18 awards in which awardees are recognised based on their career achievements, challenges, aspirations and passion to communicate the role of women in STEM. Graduate Women Victoria19 similarly provides scholarships at the tertiary level to support equity to participate in education, to enable women and girls in academia to reach their full potential. Although not full scholarships awarded by government funding bodies or tertiary scholarship schemes, these are grassroots measures which provide much needed stop-gap funding for women to attain academic qualifications and progress their research.
Real change and attainment of gender equity will only be fulfilled when government, academia – including its societies and colleges, and industry work together as a collective to drive systemic change directed by grassroots advocacy and initiatives. Solutions cannot be about fixing women, but instead need to focus on shifting the barriers and changing the fundamental ways things are done, such as adopting new recruitment strategies, changing promotion and employment metrics and, importantly, expanding our ideas of what traits valuable leaders possess. Women’s unique lived-experiences, including those extra diverse hurdles they have had to overcome, have given women a unique leadership style poised to influence rather than emulate the highly entrenched command-and-control leadership style. With more women in leadership roles in Victoria’s universities and MRIs, this will open doors for others and help to drive systemic change from within by those that have lived it.
With momentum visibly growing across Victoria’s medical research sector, amplified by the Victorian Government’s recent gender equality act 202020, significant efforts will only continue to eliminate gender stereotypes in science; provide equal access to education in technical and STEM subjects; establish supportive workplace culture to attract and support women scientists to fully participate in the workforce; and implement processes and pathways to ensure a greater proportion of women researchers are retained and promoted such that as leaders, women’s unique perspectives and diversity will be reflected in Victorian innovation and scientific discovery.
Dr Jessica Borger is the Scientific Education Team Leader at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.
- Hare, Julie. “UNSW psychologist Louisa Degenhard among the world’s top female scientistst.” AFR, 11 November 2022, https://www.afr.com/work-and-careers/leaders/thirty-six-australians-on-list-of-world-s-best-female-scientists-20221111-p5bxea
- Wehbe, Mohamad. “The Matilda Effect: Women Scientists Erased From the History Books – Watchdogs Gazette.” Watchdogs Gazette, 4 May 2021 https://watchdogsgazette.com/science-2/the-matilda-effect-women-scientists-erased-from-the-history-books/. Accessed February 2023
- “Professor Sharon Lewin and Dr Anthony Fauci: Impact of research on the COVID-19 pandemic (2021) – AAHMS.” Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences, https://aahms.org/video/pofessor-sharon-lewin-and-dr-anthony-fauci-impact-of-research-on-the-covid-19-pandemic-2021/ Accessed February 2023.
- Keenihan, Sarah, et al. “X, Y and the genetics of sex: Professor Jenny Graves awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science 2017.” The Conversation, 18 October 2017, https://theconversation.com/x-y-and-the-genetics-of-sex-professor-jenny-graves-awarded-the-prime-ministers-prize-for-science-2017-85740. Accessed February 2023.
- Drezin, Jenny. Digitally Empowered Generation Equality: Women, Girls and ICT in the context of Covid-19 in selected Western Balkan and Eastern Partnership Countries. 2021. UN Women, https://www2.unwomen.org/-/media/field%20office%20eca/attachments/publications/2021/3/itu%20unw%20digital%20gender%20gap%20executive%20summary.pdf?la=en&vs=2126.
- UNESCO Science Report: The race against time for smarter development. 2021, https://www.unesco.org/reports/science/2021/en.
- “Women in STEM Australia.” STEM Women, 17 July 2020, https://www.stemwomen.com/women-in-stem-australia. Accessed February 2023.
- “The Trades Fit: Young Women in Trades and Tech.” Victorian Government, https://www.vic.gov.au/trades-fit-young-women-trades-and-tech.
- Borger, Jessica. “We need to address gender bias in medical research peer review.” Women’s Agenda, 27 February 2022, https://womensagenda.com.au/latest/the-gender-bias-in-peer-review/. Accessed February 2023.
- “Gender equity in action | WEHI.” Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, 26 August 2022, https://www.wehi.edu.au/about-institute-life/gender-equity/gender-equity-action. Accessed February 2023.
- “Our subscribers and awardees | SAGE.” Science in Australia Gender Equity, https://sciencegenderequity.org.au/sage-accreditation-and-awards/sage-subscribers-and-athena-swan-awardees/. Accessed February 2023.
- WiSPP, https://www.wispp.org.au/wispp-home
- “Stopping an exodus: helping Victoria’s early and mid-career medical researchers to rebound from COVID-19 disruptions.” 2020, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/603d4938a6de590d5d578e52/t/603f7635c55d9a137bf3dfc3/1614771768066/WiSPP_EMCR+Submission+to+Vic+State+Gov_29.09.2020.pdf.
- “Impacts of COVID-19 for EMCRs.” https://www.science.org.au/files/userfiles/support/documents/covid19-emcr-impact-report.pdf.
- veski, https://www.veski.org.au/
- “veski Inspiring Women Fellowships.” veski, https://www.veski.org.au/veski-inspiring-women-program/veski-inspiring-women-fellowships/. Accessed February 2023.
- “Career Recovery.” veski, https://www.veski.org.au/career-recovery-grants/. Accessed February 2023.
- “Bridging the Funding Gap.” veski, https://www.veski.org.au/bridging-the-funding-gap/. Accessed February 2023.
- Graduate Women Victoria, https://gradwomenvic.org.au/about-us/
- “About the Gender Equality Act 2020.” Commission for Gender Equality in the Public Sector, 22 August 2022, https://www.genderequalitycommission.vic.gov.au/about-gender-equality-act-2020. Accessed February 2023.