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The fight for gender equity in STEM

Gender equality is a huge issue in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). Everyone’s heard of the pay gaps and ‘leaky pipeline’ to senior positions. Thankfully, the problem is now widely accepted, researched and reported on. But who’s fighting to fix it?

Government spending on STEM

The dramatic lack of women in top STEM jobs is a fact that jumps out of a report by Australia’s Chief Scientist Alan Finkel. Following Finkel’s 2016 STEM Workforce report, state and federal governments are urgently funding STEM initiatives.

Dr Emily Nicholson, Senior Lecturer in Quantitative Ecology with Deakin’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences, has noticed rumblings of a culture shift and credits it, in part, to government support. Alongside her conservation science work, Dr Nicholson has led research on gender bias in STEM.

‘Although the statistics for women in STEM aren’t great, there is a huge momentum for change in the culture of science and academia; the initiatives are a large part of this,’ Dr Nicholson says in her blog post, Inspiring Women in Science.

One such initiative is Federal Government support for the Science in Australia Gender Equity program (SAGE). SAGE works directly with Australian STEM institutions to collect internal data on gender equality and improve gender equity at all levels.

Another initiative is Victorian Government funding for Inspiring Women Fellowships. The fellowships (one of which was awarded to Dr Nicholson) support female STEM leaders to remain competitive and fight for cultural change.

Dr Emily Nicholson, Senior Lecturer in Quantitative Ecology with Deakin’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences

Looking deeper than maternity leave

Career breaks for raising children are often blamed for the lack of women in senior STEM roles, but Dr Nicholson is sceptical of that being the true cause.

‘Women make up at least 50% of graduates and postgraduates in most areas of science. It drops off as you get more senior and get a permanent position. Part of that coincides with when you might be having kids, but it’s not the whole story or you’d just have women without kids who are running the world.’

Dr Nicholson’s observations are backed by SAGE and the Federal Government. According to SAGE, while half of junior academics are women, only one in five become professors. A startling paper by Australia’s Office of the Chief Scientist, Busting myths about Women in STEM, asserts that only 12% of female STEM graduates are reaching the top income bracket. The paper explicitly notes that: ‘parenthood does not explain the wage gap: it is similar for women without children’.

So, why the disparity? Dr Nicholson believes it’s down to culture. ‘The time out actually is not the problem. It’s the way people perceive the time out.’

Dr Nicholson fought this perception by using a scientific approach to account for career breaks on her CV. Using a data-based method, she reframed career breaks to focus on value and production. The method proved so good it was published in top international journal, Science and taken up by women worldwide.

‘I think actually having career breaks is a benefit to your science because when you take time away, you get some perspective,’ Dr Nicholson says.

Fighting perceptions of parents

The perception of working parents by the STEM industry is also an issue, according to Dr Nicholson. She believes the way to fight those perceptions is to speak up.

‘[One perception is that] science is not a 9-to-5 job, that if you’ve got a good idea you’ve just got to stay and keep working. I put my hand up and went – who’s going to pick the kids up from childcare or school? It’s those sorts of attitudes which are just false.’

Dr Nicholson advocates cultural change by speaking up about the needs of working parents, with one example being parent rooms. ‘Several mums from my lab were going to a conference together so we asked [for a parent room]: the conference organisers provided an amazing space, with toys and books brought in by local science mums and dads,’ Dr Nicholson recalls on her blog.

She’s pushing back against the perception that academia isn’t suited to parenting. ‘When I’ve talked to other mums and dads who work part time in academia, it’s a great system for being able to allow flexibility but I think a lot of people don’t recognise that. They can’t see another way of a system working.  I can do my job exactly the same working part-time or full-time.’

With the combined effort of governments and determined scientists like Dr Nicholson fighting for gender equity, the statistics on women in STEM will surely start to move in the right direction.

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Dr Emily Nicholson
Dr Emily Nicholson

Senior Lecturer in Quantitative Ecology, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

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