Women in Science… do the numbers stack up?


With all the recent heated discussions about misogyny and gender bias spilling over from the Australian political sphere into broader debates about Australian culture, I was interested to see how the figures might stack up in the professional area of Science. I think this is an important line of enquiry when we have been discussing issues of Science literacy and the concept of Science equity in our Communicating Science course. Does this effect women in a particular way? Perhaps the opening up of Science needs to specifically target under-represented groups and does this include women?

Recent commentaries suggest it does. For decades, government reports and academic studies point to the deficit of women working in the field of Science and other STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) areas; highlighting the negative impact this has upon the nation’s productivity through a shortage of key skills when only half the potential workforce is being utilised; particularly in the areas of engineering and technology. Some studies further identify a brain drain of Australian women professionals overseas although it would be interesting to know the statistics for gender ratios of incoming specialists – to what professional fields and how this contributes to a greater or lesser imbalance.

I was interested to learn, however, on the whole there is a healthy rate of  girls enrolling in undergraduate STEM programmes, although with a clear bias toward allied health fields. Furthermore, women are also more likely to finish their undergraduate degrees than their male classmates. So what is the problem?

Statistics from Europe, the US and here in Australia suggest it is in moving on to postgraduate programs and/or transitioning into the workforce where most losses of female graduates occur. However, unlike other countries which have established major initiatives to retain and promote women in STEM, Australia has lost sight of both ‘equity and productivity agendas’ (DFEEST, p. 9).

For example only 22 women applied for Australian Laureate Fellowships last year and ignoring the two Laureate Fellowships reserved for women, only two of the 22 female applicants were successful. (Knowing how many men applied would also be good to know as it might suggest the female rate of 4 from 22 was pretty good). Perhaps more  clear-cut is that women comprise only 12% of senior scientists at CSIRO and of the 20 newest Fellows elected to the Australian Academy of Science in 2013, none were women. (Gaensler, 2013). Statistics for Australian Laureate Fellowship recipients have improved somewhat this year with 4 out of 17 awarded to women. I’m not sure if there is anything significant in 3 of the 4 women recipients coming from the state of New South Wales… from where there was only one male recipient. The fourth national female recipient was our own Professor Tanya Monro from the University of Adelaide.

The report, ‘Female participation in STEM study and work in South Austtralia 2012’, published last year by Department of Further Education, Employment, Science and Technology (DFEEST) in South Australia covering a ‘learning-work continuum’ from 2008-2011, showed that only 22% of the engineering workforce were women and the unemployment rate for women engineers was almost twice as high as men. And of those female scientists and engineers surveyed in 2009-2012, 25% thought they would leave their professions within five years and close to 70% expected their career path to be ‘highly impacted’ by taking parental leave (p.9). Does this represent an ongoing and systemic cultural failure?

In an interview with ABC News, the head of the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies (FASTS), Anna-Maria Arabia, described how a scientist’s success is based on their publication rate, “But it is a publication rate that may have been calculated over the number of years that they have been in research since their PhD where perhaps five of those years may have been out of the workforce to raise children,” she said. [NB Since this interview was published, Anna-Maria Arabia has moved onto another position and FASTS has become Science & Technology Australia]

As a result of this structure many women simply give up trying to secure research funding (strongly informed by their publication rate) when they return to work as they can’t compete; instead turning to other roles such as teaching. In a feature interview below, Dr Heather Bray makes reference to the relevance of specific funding at the University of Adelaide established for women who have taken time out of their career to meet family responsibilities (as culturally women tend to be the family carers whether for children, spouses or elderly parents). It should also be noted that many universities are responding to the challenges of balancing a career and parenting through initiatives such as the establishment of on-campus creches and child care centres. But there is still an underlying belief held by many senior staff that a woman who is also a mother will not have the time nor energy required to fulfil research or senior academic positions.

Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics at The University of Sydney, Bryan Gaensler, reflects that national funding agencies could do much better in this regard. He suggests that, ‘Rather than ask applicants to set out their track record but then essentially force them to apologise for their career interruptions, we need to let researchers play to their strengths. For example, applicants should be able to choose for each funding round whether they want their grant to be assessed mainly on past performance or on the quality of their proposed research program.’ (Gaensler, ‘Science needs more women’,The Australian, April 10, 2013)

http://www.nature.com/news/inequality-quantified-mind-the-gender-gap-1.12550# on the Nature website provides a clear and interactive illustration of the gender gap reflected in the employment rates and renumeration in science and engineering in US universities which you can play around with.

From the same online article, ‘Inequality quantified: Mind the gender gap’ (Shen 2013), the illustration below expresses international figures related to the presence of women in science at higher levels of research in academia.


This reflects a general condition of past progress having stalled in recent years, attributed to several factors including gender bias in recruitment, a lack of role models and women feeling they have to make a choice of commitment to career progression or parenting duties (whether existing or anticipated). The latter is interesting to consider as there is an inference women don’t see a career in research as compatible with having a family. While there is a focus upon women balancing a career with being a parent, it shouldn’t be overlooked that women are also more likely to be fulfilling other carers’ roles within their families. Nor should it be forgotten that young fathers are choosing (as well as being co-opted by working spouses) to take a more hands-on role in raising children while continuing to work full-time. I wonder how their careers are affected by this shift in roles? Does a more equal distribution of parenting duties result in two rather than one peron’s career being impacted? I suppose we are also seeing more men reversing the norm and  choosing to forego their own career to take on the role of primary carer while their spouses develop theirs instead. It is in this circumstance or when women are single mothers that the disparity between pay for men and women comes into much sharper focus.  This type of discrimination is unfathomable in our modern society and yet it is very real. Do we need to teach young women or even girls to demand better for themselves?

Claims that women are not as naturally suited to the study of Science or have less to offer than men used to explain the gender imbalance are strongly refuted by Bryan Gaensler. He reflects:

  • First, there are robust studies that show that the performance of a research team improves when there is a larger proportion of women.
  • Second, it is a terrible waste of the public funds spent on undergraduate education if we don’t expect most female students to actually use their training.
  • Most crucially, some of the reasons why this imbalance exists are insidious, and need to be eliminated from the workplace.

Gaensler insists that above all, we need to accept that ‘gender neutral’ is not the same thing as ‘gender equitable’ (2013). This suggests adopting an approach which has a clear gender bias towards women rather than just trying to instill equal treatment. This is quite a controversial idea and many women insist that it is more important they are recognised on merit rather than because they are female. But it is also disturbingly real that as a result of subtle and not-so-subtle gender bias that women often have to significantly outperform their male counterparts to be recognised which is great for Science but not so good for women. Others are trying to expand the debate to look for more creative solutions than instituting direct but clumsy actions like quotas.

I think Gaensler has a point in view of extensive research demonstrating both men and women exhibit gender bias against women when recruiting or assessing funding applications without being conscious of it. The results of a relevant study I came across were discouraging. 127 professors of biology, chemistry and physics at 6 US universities were asked to evaluate the CVs of two fictitious college students for a job as a laboratory manager. The professors said they would offer ‘Jennifer’ US$3,730 less per year than ‘John’, even though the CVs were identical. They also expressed greater willingness to mentor ‘John’ than ‘Jennifer’. Microbiologist Jo Handelsman whose team was running the test said “If you extrapolate that to all the interactions that faculty have with students, it becomes very frightening,” (Shen, 2013). I agree.

But what are the personal experiences of real women of science locally and how do these inform their perspectives of the issues raised? In search of answers, I set forth with voice recorder and notepad in hand to speak individually with two women I have recently met through the Communicating Science course. As both are currently employed within the university sphere, their unique views are mostly focussed upon life in academia. I started by asking why they think we need somen in science…

[NB Following some trouble with the file sharing media, I have had to link to full tapings without post-editing. I apologise for the recording quality and hope to repackage cleaner recordings later. Please let me know if you are unable to access the audio files through the links to soundcloud]


1. Dr Natalie Wiiliamson,     Play Interview… (15 minutes unedited)

First Year Coordinator, Chemistry (School of Chemistry and Physics), University of Adelaide, South Australia.


2. Dr Heather Bray,       Play Interview… (40 minutes unedited)

Special Project Officer, School of Agriculture Food and Wine, and Senior Research Associate, School of History and Politics, University of Adelaide, South Australia.

A recent feature piece published in Nature (March, 2013) profiled several young and accomplished women scientists who were expecting their first child. Their outlook was positive and self-assured. They foresaw no difficulty in managing their responsibilities managing staff and research from maternity leave and returning to work as soon as possible. I say, ‘Good on them’ but I wonder whether they have a realistic view of the physical and emotional challenges motherhood entails. I think this balancing act mainly faced by women is very tricky to negotiate with a career. We have been brought up to believe we can do it all but perhaps we can’t do it all at once. Therefore, how careers for women in science can cope with absences without disadvantaging career promotion is something institutions and employers need to consider. While there is a clarion call for women to be valued as scientists, how can this be balanced with continuing to value their role as mothers in society? What was common amongst the profiles was the presence of strong female role models.

And so to end on a more positive note. The L’Oréal-UNESCO partnership was formed to focus attention on the gender gap in science not only by providing recognition and support to women researchers but to also highlight them as role models to younger girls and challenge gender stereotypes around the world. ‘By giving science a female face, the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science program strives to inspire today’s young women to become tomorrow’s researchers.’

This post has focussed upon an ongoing debate about a gender bias in Science and only briefly outlined some positive responses. A further exploration of the latter could well prove a worthwhile follow-up. And bear in mind that gender bias is not restricted to the field of Science. The gender gap is a product of our broader culture, affecting some more than others, and some not at all but which still needs to be addressed.

Thanks to Natalie and Heather for their contribution to this post as interview subjects.