Published by the Faculty of Business, Government and Law, University of Canberra


Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

The evidence is in for women in STEM (and it’s not good news)

Oct 28, 2020 | News, Feature

Written by Broad Agenda

Scientists and researchers are not a particularly happy bunch – not according to a recent survey of nearly 1500 Australian scientists. And particularly not female scientists who have to contend with a Grand-Canyon wide gender pay gap, low levels of seniority, early career departure and surprisingly high levels of sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination.

The annual survey from peak group Science and Technology Australia found one in five scientists were planning to leave the profession permanently – and, unsurprisingly, the figures were more pronounced along gender lines. Indeed, 21.7% of women compared with 15.7% of men said they wanted to quit being a scientist within the foreseeable future.

Indeed, 21.7% of women compared with 15.7% of men said they wanted to quit being a scientist within the foreseeable future.

For women, the reasons are plain to see. After all, 40% said they had experienced gender bias or discrimination in the previous three years, 21% had experienced sexual harassment at least once in their careers.

On top of harassment and discrimination, women scientists “commonly cited lack of recognition or opportunities, lack of career advancements and parenthood as reasons for considering permanently leaving the profession,” the report said. And then there’s a gender pay gap of 17%.

With such damning data and statistics, it is perhaps fortunate that female researchers in universities and medical research centres now have the formidable gender warrior Libby Lyons in their court.

Libby Lyons is the inaugural chair of SAGE.

Ms Lyons, who is the director of the Australian Government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency, has been appointed the inaugural chair of Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) – an initiative adapted from a UK program called Athena SWAN Charter.

The accreditation-based program encourages institutions to put in place polices and programs that address the representation, promotion and retention of women in the research sector.

And while SAGE has already some runs on the board since it was introduced in 2016, Ms Lyons said she was deeply concerned by the new survey findings, especially around the gender pay gap.

“We need to ensure that all employers are paying their employees equitably and lawfully and taking action to close their pay gaps. The report shows there is still much work to be done on this issue,” she said.

Pay might be a contributing factor to the serious issue of retention. The survey looked at the age and gender profile to ascertain whether women were leaving the sector prematurely.

Only 17% of female respondents were aged 50 and over compared with 36.9% of male respondents.

“After peaking at 21.2% [of employees] in the 35-to-40 years age bracket, the age profile of women surveyed fell markedly. In contrast, the age profile of male respondents was much more evenly distributed across the age brackets, with male respondents are well represented across years of experience up to retirement age. [Also only] 40% of female respondents compared with 63% of male respondents were 40 years of age or older. [Only] 17% of female respondents were aged 50 and over compared with 36.9% of male respondents,” the report found.

Given the gender dynamics at play – more senior men relative to large numbers of junior women – it perhaps unsurprising that the sector regularly gets rocked by cases of sexual harassment.

“If we have more balance in terms of personalities, age and diversity, then that will lead to more harmonious workplaces. More broadly, investor groups and community expectations are sending very clear messages to boards and governing bodies: if there are incidents of poor behaviour – unacceptable behaviour – in your organisation, you can’t sweep it under the carpet. You have an obligation to the health and safety of the people in your organisation,” Ms Lyons said.

She also pointed to a well-established business case as to why all organisations from corporations to government to universities and research institutes should embrace gender equality wholeheartedly.

“The BCEC 2020 Gender Equity Insights report found company profitability, performance and productivity improve when the representation of women in leadership roles increases,” she said.

“If higher education and research institutions stay the course on gender equality and diversity, there are not only financial benefits for individual institutions but a real likelihood that our country will claw its way out of recession and recover more quickly. As a nation, we cannot afford to see a reversal of the hard-won gains by women in the [research] sector, particularly when they are one of the groups most impacted by this pandemic.”

Women researchers are more likely to hold insecure and junior roles, making them more vulnerable to job losses.

Indeed, there is a growing mountain of international evidence pointing to women researchers bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s impact on the sector.

As Emma Johnston, dean of science at the University of NSW told the high-profile journal Nature: “Women in academic science tend to be less senior than men are, and they hold fewer secure positions: they are more likely to be on contract or junior roles, which are easier to terminate.”

Research institutions or universities should keep in the front of their minds that cost-saving decisions might not be neutral from a gender perspective.

She went on: “When cost savings are necessary, the easy thing is to let go of those jobs first. Research institutions or universities should keep in the front of their minds that cost-saving decisions might not be neutral from a gender perspective.”

Other analysis found that the proportion of academic papers with female authors had declined during the pandemic; specifically on the preprint website medRxiv, in January 2020 male scientists were authors of about 20% more papers than women. By April that figure was over 50%.

Publishing, in turn, impacts a researcher’s capacity to seek promotions and seniority – thus igniting a potentially years-long vicious cycle in diminishing returns on women researcher’s career stakes.

Libby Lyons will have her work cut out for her. But she remains hopeful that the research sector understands the value of diversity in organisations. After all, the hard evidence is there for all to see.





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