Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Women in Science: A New Frontier in Australia

Credit: Bahudhara / CC by 4.0 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Emma_Johns

Emma Johnston is a leading marine ecologist at the University of New South Wales and an ardent public advocate for women in science. She is a recipient of the Nancy Millis Medal. Credit: Bahudhara / CC by 4.0 https://commons.wikimedia.org/ wiki/File:Emma_Johnston.JPG

By Ann Moyal

The role of women in Australian science has been a contested arena, a place of major contributions yet of cultural disparity. The recent adoption of the SAGE initiative offers a route to greater gender equity in an innovative nation.

Women have played a significant role in Australian science for almost two centuries. From their period as colonial botanical and natural history illustrators and cultural educators, through their penetration in the early universities as science students, through wartime research and their spread into a maze of new laboratory and institutional positions, they have been essential contributors to scientific knowledge.

Yet despite being high achievers and the fact that by the late 1970s they constituted more than half the students studying for a science degree, the percentage of women in science has declined the higher up the professional ranks they climbed. As a Senate Committee of 1982 reported, there was a high attrition rate among women between the completion of an Honours degree and a higher degree, while promotion from tutor to lecturer was a key obstacle in their academic careers. Across the academic board, in 1983 only 16.1% of all university appointments were held by women.

What had happened? The reasons stacked up in the field of science. Women interested in academic careers encountered greater teaching burdens, faced disadvantageous peer review of prepublished papers and grant applications, published fewer papers from their PhD research than male colleagues, lacked mentoring, were frequently excluded from informal information networks, and were generally confined below the career trajectories available to men. Gathered in posts at tutor, senior tutor and lecturer level, their very excellence as teachers often hampered their consideration for research posts. In a research-intensive field, the rewards played out hierarchically in a male-structured world.

Despite this there were some outstanding trailblazers. At the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in 1944, physicist Ruby Payne-Scott pioneered the discipline of radio astronomy and placed Australia at the top of a vital new field. Nancy Willis served there as a wartime technician and later became a pioneer at Melbourne University in fermentation research and industrial applied microbiology and wastewater treatment. From the 1930s, various women figured prominently in state appointments in geological science. Irene Crespin became Commonwealth palaeontologist in 1936, while Prof Dorothy Hill of Queensland University gained an international research profile for her work on coral fossils, and in 1956 the first woman was elected as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science.

Later periods set further landmarks. In 1991 molecular biologist Prof Adrienne Clarke became the first woman chairperson of CSIRO. Climate scientist Prof Ann Henderson-Sellers served as director of environment at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization. Prof Suzanne Cory rose to be the first woman director of the Walter and Eliza Hall of Medical Research.

In contemporary times a coterie of younger women hold leadership professorships in diverse scientific fields. Yet it is significant that all these successful science women express an awareness of the need to work 60–70 hours per week to be competitive, foster networks and remain highly confident in their research fields.

In 1993 the Commonwealth government set up an interdisciplinary advisory committee to investigate the experience of women and girls in science, engineering and technology. The committee noted a pattern of negative behaviour exhibited by men and boys – often unconsciously – that was, they concluded, “more evident by its impact and effect than any description or analysis” but that alienated, marginalised and isolated women in scientific work. They saw it as “a mysterious and disembodied negative force” and labelled it “gender harassment”.

Data across the final decades of the last century and into the 21st century continue to indicate that while women have been graduating in conspicuous numbers in science, they have remained largely cooped at the lower level of the employment scale. Many factors have contributed. Women themselves have tended to underestimate their own abilities in transitioning from secondary to tertiary education, from undergraduate to postgraduate studies, and throughout their professional lives.

The prevailing view was that advancement was linear towards an ever-receding “glass ceiling”. In recent years, the notion of the “revolving door” was replaced by the”leaking pipeline”, a concept reflecting the labyrinthine cluster of challenges that women confronted across their scientific careers. These include the loss of connections in fast-moving fields due to childbirth and child rearing.

Various attempts have been made to address gender inequality at the research level. The Australian Research Council’s Discovery and Linkage grants, the 2001 Federation Scheme and the ARC’s Future Fellowships scheme were set up to attract and retain the best and brightest of mid-career scientists, and secured a number of women candidates, while the Georgina Sweet Australian Laureate Fellowship was established in 2010 to address the low proportion of applications from women.

Additionally, both the ARC and the National Health and Medical Research Council agreed to change how they assessed research publications from grant applicants whose careers had been interrupted. The Australian Academy of Science also set out to redress its own gender discrepancy by considering the real contribution of women for fellowships rather than ranking them on established male indices like delivering keynote addresses overseas, which is often impossible for women candidates.

In both 2014 and 2016 the Academy increased its intake of women Fellows. It also introduced the Nancy Millis Medal for Women in Science (pictured above) for female mid-career researchers in any branch of the natural sciences with demonstrated research potential for leadership in science.

While such approaches have been fragmented and not entirely successful in their range, the recent Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) initiative has given a forceful signal that this complex and conflicted scene is being transformed.

The SAGE forum held at the Australian Academy of Science in November 2014 directly focused the gender equity debate. Representing a partnership between the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, it identified the factors that militated against gender equity for women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) in academic and other research institutions. It led to the launch last year of a SAGE pilot to implement an Australian model of the UK’s successful Athena SWAN project, whose charter is an accreditation and awards program to encourage and recognise commitment to gender equity in STEMM in higher education and research.

The Athena SWAN formula requires institutions to commit to ten key principles of their Charter and adopt them in their policies, action plans and culture. These are to collect comprehensive data on their own gender equity policies and practices, and to develop and implement plans to improve gender equity at all levels of seniority for all staff and students. With demonstrated evidence of gender equity improvements over 2 years, institutions and departments may then seek accreditation with Athena SWAN at levels of Bronze, Silver or Gold.

The SAGE pilot was the first Athena SWAN program introduced outside Britain and Ireland, and it swiftly attracted 30 universities, six medical research institutes and four publicly funded research agencies. A further eight institutions joined at the first SAGE Symposium held in Sydney in June this year.

The appointment of microbiologist Dr Wafa El-Adhami, who has experience in policy and regulatory reform, performance management and negotiation, as Executive Director was followed by the appointment of former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick as Chair of SAGE’s Expert Advisory Group.

The trajectory of women’s history in science has been long and troubled. The SAGE Forum conclusions themselves suggest that it may “take many years, if not decades, to achieve gender equity at senior levels in the sciences in Australia”.

However, with the present commitment of a significant body of Australian universities and research institutes to the SAGE initiative and a search for gender equity management posts appearing in university staffing programs, it would seem that the rich and expanding contribution of women scientists to this country’s innovative and progressive future is near at hand.


Ann Moyal is a historian of Australian science and technology. Her books include Platypus, A Bright & Savage Land: Scientists in Colonial Australia and Clear Across Australia: A History of Telecommunications.