Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The X-Factor in the Productivity Equation

By Anna-Maria Arabia

The progress of women in science and technology has stalled for the past 15 years.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard wants a higher participation economy because it is a driver of prosperity, a sustainer of growth and a giver of hope and purpose to the community. She also wants an economy with a new generation of Australian entrepreneurs, researchers and inventors.

But Australian governments and industry are failing to take advantage of a key piece of the participation and productivity jigsaw that is sitting right under their nose – women. I know, because I’m a woman who left science for 8 years.

The Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies has commissioned and published a report by Prof Sharon Bell entitled Women in Science in Australia: Maximising Productivity, Diversity and Innovation, which found that the progress of women in science and technology has stalled for the past 15 years. Although there are some bright spots, very little has changed since the 1995 report Women in Science, Engineering and Technology.

We know that women participate evenly in science and technology at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, yet they remain seriously under-represented at senior levels, mirroring the trend seen in many sectors.

There are, however, steps that the science sector can take to swell the ranks of senior women in science and, in so doing, deliver a productivity boost to the economy.

We need to reframe scientific career paths and change institutional cultures. People should not suffer disadvantage when competing for research funding after having taken time out of the workforce to care for families. Improved childcare, flexible working hours and incentives to re-enter the workforce are all part of the solution.

But we shouldn’t overlook zero-cost options available now to attract and retain more women in science at mid-career level and above. Mandatory reporting of female participation has a way of focusing the mind of senior decision-makers. It can turn good intentions into action, and can transform workplace cultures.

A good start would be annual reporting of the number of women employed in taxpayer-funded research agencies, their ranks and retention rates, as well as any workplace initiatives to progress towards parity.

Maximising the participation of senior women in science pays back in spades: it boosts productivity, innovation, international competitiveness and social equity. The boost to GDP would be significant. A Goldman Sachs JB Were report found that closing the gender gap could boost GDP by 11%.

Better representation of women at senior levels would also have a positive generational impact by giving women greater visibility and involvement in mentoring junior staff.

There is much debate in Australia about the value of affirmative action and quotas, but the cold hard facts speak for themselves. Initiatives undertaken overseas have shown that behaviour changes once performance is measured and reported.

Further, there is significant evidence that 30% female representation is effective and contributes positively to innovation, with tokenism having little or no impact.

Getting more women into the sciences is, ultimately, no longer a Utopian goal. It’s no longer about taking the first step. Australia is well past that stage.

It’s about productivity: ensuring that Australia remains globally competitive and even ahead of the game rather than running the risk of falling behind in an educated, globalised world.

Fifteen years is too long to wait for the next report on women in science in Australia. Too many women have already missed out as progress towards gender equality has stalled.

We cannot afford to wait another 15 years to capitalise on the expertise, skills and innovation that women can bring to science and technology, particularly women at mid-career level and above.

Anna-Maria Arabia is the CEO of the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies.