Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

We Need to Keep Women in Focus as Change Agents

By Cathy Foley

Not because we should, but because we must – for innovation’s sake.

There is strong evidence that companies operating with a gender balance actually enhance their innovation quotient and gain a competitive advantage.

Reports also suggest that advances in gender equity correlate positively with higher Gross National Product (GNP), and that increasing women’s labour force participation and earnings generates greater economic benefits for a family’s health and education.

Science and technology that lead to innovation are critical for the changes that lead to a better quality of life, greater business opportunities and a happier, healthier and more equitable society.

As a nation Australia has achieved great things. Last year the OECD Better Life index named Australia as the country with the highest quality of life in the world.

But we still have considerable work to do in many ways, including closing the gender gap in the workplace. The World Economic Forum reported that in 2013 Australia continued to sit at 24th in closing this gap – just above Ecuador and Mozambique.

Australia still has only 17.6% representation of women on ASX 200 boards (at 14 February 2014), and almost one-quarter of boards of the ASX 200 still do not have any females at all.

Women working in science remain hugely underrepresented in leadership roles, and some areas of physics and engineering have as little as 5% female participation.

The Australian Businesswomen’s Network says that women are starting small businesses at twice the rate of men. Despite this, a US study has found that female-owned companies are less likely to attract private investment compared with male-owned companies.

If the nexus of women, science and business is the recipe for success in innovation, then how do women, science and business meet?

Given the huge benefits that innovation can bring – economically and socially – we should be doing everything we can to encourage environments where this type of thinking and practice can thrive.

One of the most effective ways to do this would be to achieve gender balance in our innovation system. Equity, diversity and the lost opportunity of not capturing the full human potential are important arguments for having more women involved in science, technology and business.

But there is another reason.

Women bring a lot to the table as the traditional “social organisers”. Business and science success is all about relationships and networking. You have to meet to do business.

Take the science world as an example. On average it takes about 20 years for a discovery to develop into a product, but everyone wants this to happen faster. The delay often occurs in what’s known as the Valley of Death – a black hole in the commercialisation process that can add years to transitioning time. Translating a discovery in the science laboratory to engineering and development, and then finally securing industry adoption, can be a tortuous process.

Women can offer a great deal in making that link as years of social conditioning means that it comes naturally to us.

Could the gender gap be a factor holding back the transition of science to industry, leading to missed opportunities? The diversity that women bring as scientists, technologists, engineers and nascent entrepreneurs might be the answer.

If women’s participation is a demonstrated element for business success and innovation is the essential ingredient for businesses to flourish, then why have we not embraced the opportunity to boost the role of women in science and business? Perhaps if we did we would witness greater translation of research to industry and our economic success would grow even more.

Increasing the participation of women in science, technology and business – big and small – is critical if Australia is to continue to have a world-leading quality of life, close the gender gap and have internationally competitive businesses.

Economic and social prosperity depends on change. This is one change we need to make now.

Dr Cathy Foley PSM FTSE is Chief of CSIRO Materials Science and Engineering, and has been a strong advocate for women throughout her career.