Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Solving the Gender Equation

Credit: momius/Adobe

Credit: momius/Adobe

By Bruce Godfrey

The SAGE program aims to engender balance in STEM professions.

We know that the engineering, technology and science professions have a very serious problem with gender balance – or rather the absence of anything approaching equality.

Australian women obtained more than 60% of undergraduate degrees in 2013. However, fewer than 10% of those employed in this country as engineers are women. There is change, but the rate is glacial.

Worldwide, women accounted for less than one-third of those employed in scientific R&D in 2014. In Australia, the science and technology picture for women is no better.

So what are we going to do about it? And yes, by we, I do mean that men who have built satisfying STEM and non-STEM careers using STEM skills need to take responsibility and lead from the front.

The first challenge is to begin to dismantle the structural barriers that block women’s progress. Such barriers can include all-male executive teams, outdated views about women in STEM (e.g. assuming that career progression is not a priority), or promotion policies that don’t take into account the breaks that women may need to have children or for family reasons.

The structural barriers are, in turn, underpinned by backward cultural assumptions that can, in the worst case, justify or even validate sexual harassment. An article in The Observer in Britain in July reported how the hierarchy, working environment and male-dominated culture of science and engineering make tackling sexual misconduct more complex and challenging than in other fields and industries. The result can be that women drop out.

And that, surely, is the point. The exclusion or marginalisation of women in STEM damages the careers or even the lives of the women involved. It also results in a palpable and obvious loss of expertise, talent and investment.

That’s why many universities and research institutions have joined the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) program, a partnership between the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE) and the Australian Academy of Science.

SAGE is not a box-ticking exercise. It provides a starting point for discussion and action – a safe environment to move beyond mere talk.

It encourages institutions to find the data they need to better understand the issues facing their staff and to understand reasons, at the local level, as to why the careers of women in academia and research are not progressing at the same rate as men’s – even though there are already working practices to support career progression in their organisations.

It’s still early days, but participants are reporting some improvements, including positive impact on gender equity within SAGE-participating institutions, increased visibility of women leaders, strategies to increase the proportion of women in STEM departments and, in some cases, improved working practices to support career progression.

The culture shifts when more women are in STEM areas, leave policies are changed to be more carer-friendly, and more women feel able to put themselves forward for promotion. Everyone involved accepts that we’re talking generational change, and that it’s a process that may take a decade or more to reach fruition, but the momentum is there.

I’m proud that ATSE is playing its part by challenging our own long-held cultural practices. Our new Diversity and Inclusion Policy commits us to making its principles our core business, and has seen us adopt the framework devised in the UK by the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Science Council.

We aim for women to constitute 50% of all new Fellows elected to the Academy by 2025. And we will not take part in panels that fail to incorporate reasonable levels of diversity.

The SAGE pilot assessment has shown there is a high demand for a clear national vision for gender equity that is championed by influential national leadership, with strategic positioning to leverage programs and fast-track sector transformation.

The tide is slowly turning. Time for us all to do our bit.

Bruce Godfrey is ATSE’s Vice-President of Diversity.