Hurdles for women in STEM start young and continue into late careers: Dr Cathy Foley

Hurdles for women in STEM start young and continue into late careers: Dr Cathy Foley

Ninety per cent of women at university or TAFE are studying qualifications unrelated to STEM careers, according to research mentioned by Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Cathy Foley today.

It’s a stunning figure that highlights that the pipeline for women in STEM is just not matching up to the need for a more diverse workforce in this area.

The gender imbalance in tertiary education is massive: more than a third of men in such courses are studying for STEM-related qualifications, according to the latest STEM Equity Monitor, versus the just nine per cent of women.

“When your country is building its future on high-tech STEM-related industries, that’s a problem,” Foley said today, while giving the annual 2021 Helen Williams Oration.

Helen Williams joined to hear the session and was recognised by Foley as making history in 1985 to become the first female Secretary of a Commonwealth department at the age of just 39. Foley recalled that 1985 was also the year that she joined the CSIRO as a research fellow, expecting to stay three years but continuing for 36 years. She recalled wearing a dress on the first day of the job, despite never doing so in the lab at university. But being the only female research scientist in the applied physics lab, she quickly reverted back to wearing trousers to fit in.

This was in the late 1980s. A lot has changed, but then not enough has changed for achieving equal numbers of women and men in STEM fields.

So how do we bring about significant change that can end the imbalance for good?

Foley noted the work of Women in STEM Ambassador, Professor Lisa Harvey Smith, in championing efforts to bring together the data needed to measure the impact of initiatives underway aiming to get more girls to study STEM subjects at school. With funding often going into these programs, along with considerable time and effort, we need to know what is and isn’t working.

Foley also noted the importance of role models in encouraging more women and girls into science. “I am constantly hearing from scientists and researchers about the people who influenced them when they were younger. I know I wouldn’t have ended up in science research without role models and encouragement from inspiring teachers and lecturers.

But encouraging young women to enter STEM careers is only one piece of the puzzle in improving the overall numbers.

Supporting non-linear career paths

Foley noted the “consistent and concerning” issues that early and mid-career researchers are sharing with her. She spoke about the lack of support for flexible and part-time work, as well as the lack of support for non-linear career paths. Other issues include the unhelpful alignment between the timing of university careers and the typical ages when women have children, as well as the ways success is measured, reflecting the out-dated system of things like publication numbers.

“It is troubling to hear women saying that going part-time at work damaged their careers.

“On the other side of the coin, I have heard from women who felt judged for going back to work too soon.”

Foley urged the audience to consider the needs of women in these mid career period, particularly those in their 30s.

She noted that caregiving structures are still in transition, with many parenting combinations and career expectations needing to change for everyone, including men.

She spoke about one solution in the research sector at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Melbourne, which has introduced a number of key promotion measures around career breaks, to support the careers of women – including with a childcare centre, positioned adjacent to their laboratories.

Supporting women in their 50s and 60s

Foley also spoke about the need to keep women in STEM careers through their 50s and 60s, noting some of the continued barriers for this critical part of the workforce, including age discrimination.

She also called out gaps in workplace measures and systems to support women experiencing menopause.

“Menopause is not discussed enough. I know I would have felt comfortable talking publicly about it when I went through the experience myself some years ago,” she said.

But despite half the population experiencing menopause, “there is surprisingly little research relating the impact of menopause on women’s careers in Australia. Which probably reflects the fact that it has not had enough focus of visibility.”

The situation is different in the UK, where an inquiry by the British Parliament earlier this year noted that one million women in the UK have left their jobs due to menopause symptoms. Foley said that a growing number of women are now launching discrimination cases in the UK, as a result of menopause.

Foley also highlighted the STEM Returners program in Australia as being a positive approach for improving the rates of women staying in the workforce, supported through mentoring from Engineers Australia.

Finally, Foley spoke about how women are making their mark in science and getting recognition as a result – noting the example of Dame Sarah Gilbert, one of the world’s most prominent vaccine developers, who received a spontaneous standing ovation at Wimbledon earlier this year. And Foley said she smiled when the manufacturer behind Barbie (“yes even Barbie!”) moved to feature a number of female professors and doctors on the COVID frontline, including Australian doctor Bendigo GP Kirby White, who raised money to make reusable gowns for doctors as supplies were running low in 2020.

“I know it’s Barbie with all of the Barbie baggage. But with our understanding that role modelling is so important, I welcome this.”

On imposter syndrome – a challenge Foley said female leaders face in believing that perhaps they shouldn’t be in the position they are in – Foley said it’s time to take the syndrome off the list of things to worry about.

“This is the time to stand confidently and lead by example to inspire and advance the careers of women who come behind us.”

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