'We need systemic change': Professor Renae Ryan on diversity in STEMM

‘We need disruptive systemic change’: Professor Renae Ryan on diversity in STEMM

Renae Ryan
Renae Ryan is a Professor of Biochemical Pharmacology at the University of Sydney.

She’s also the Academic Director of the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) program at the University of Sydney. In 2018, Ryan was named a finalist in the Women’s Agenda Leadership Awards.

As a young student, she didn’t think about gender very much. In biomedical science, there seemed to be lots of women around. What she came to realise as she rose through the academic ranks, was that despite high numbers of women at undergraduate and PhD levels, there were very few women in senior academic positions.

“One of the biggest surprises for me was to realise that STEMM, like many other professions, was not an even playing field. I used to think that everyone would be treated equally and the people that worked the hardest or were the brightest would succeed, but that is not necessarily the case,” Ryan told Women’s Agenda.

“Tackling issues of equity, and diversity and inclusion are difficult. They challenge our understanding of the system and our place in it – and that makes us feel uncomfortable and, at times, threatened.”

The SAGE program is a national program promoting gender equity and diversity in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM). Ryan is in charge of a team who identify gaps and areas of improvement in equity policies and practices across the University. She believes the program has real potential to change the current system.

Below, Renae tells Women’s Agenda about her current research, why she got involved in SAGE and why we need disruptive systemic change in STEMM.

Did you always know that you wanted to study science and have a career in the field?

For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in science and understanding how things work. A few key teachers in high school really cemented my love of science, in particular biology and growing up, someone very close to me had epilepsy. All of this led me to become fascinated by the complexity of the human body, and in particular the brain and led me to study neuroscience and neuropharmacology.

I completed a BSc(Hons) and a PhD in Pharmacology at the University of Sydney. I then moved to the USA where I was a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University in New York and the National Institutes of Health. I moved back to Sydney in 2007 and was appointed an A/Prof in the Sydney Medical School in 2010.

Friends from my university days are sometimes shocked when they see where I am now, as I was not the best student in my undergraduate years. I struggled to see where my degree was taking me, but once I started working in a lab at the end of third year and into honours, I fell in love with experimental science and I have never looked back.

Can you tell us a little about your career path before you were appointed as Associate Professor in the Sydney Medical School at the University of Sydney in 2010? What led you to taking on this role?

I think one of the most pivotal moments in my career was moving to the USA after my PhD. I accepted a job as a postdoctoral scientist at Columbia University in New York. I was there for a year which was amazing and challenging, both personally and professionally. I can see now the opportunities taking this leap opened up for me.  I then moved to the National Institutes of Health to do a second postdoc. During my time in the USA I was exposed to new techniques and science on a different scale and speed to what I had known in Australia. I met so many great people from all around the world that I am still in contact with, which is one of the best parts of science for me – the connections.

You have had many professional successes in recent years. Did you face any early challenges as a young woman establishing a career in STEMM?

…How did you work to overcome these?

There have been many challenges along the way, as there is for all of us. Although I loved science, I didn’t have a lot of confidence in myself to pursue a career in science, in fact I was explicitly told I would not be successful and should think about doing something else when I finished my undergraduate degree. I have two beautiful daughters, now 9 and 6. The struggle to keep my career afloat in those years when they were young is a hard one many women have to get through.  My dogged determination has kept me here and the support from my wonderful family, friends and colleagues has been invaluable to me through the hard times. Strong networks are so important, but particularly when you are struggling or having a hard time.

As a student and postdoc I didn’t really think about gender very much. There were lots of women in biomedical science. There has been for a long time and there still is. But what I didn’t realise when I was younger, was that although there were many women as undergraduate and postgraduate students, and even in the junior academic levels, there was still a steep drop-off with very few women at the Professor level.

Unfortunately, this has not changed very much in the 20 years since I was a student. Waiting for ‘women to rise up through the ranks’ does not work. There have been similar levels of women completing PhDs in this country in the STEMM field since the early 80’s, but there is still a steep drop-off at senior academic levels.

One of the biggest surprises for me was to realise that STEMM, like many other professions, was not an even playing field. I used to think that everyone would be treated equally and the people that worked the hardest or were the brightest would succeed, but that is not necessarily the case. One’s gender, race, sexual orientation, level of ability, etc. affect how successful people appear and the potential they are seen to have.

Tackling issues of equity, and diversity and inclusion are difficult. They challenge our understanding of the system and our place in it – and that makes us feel uncomfortable and, at times, threatened. But we need to feel uncomfortable and to honestly reflect on these issues if we are to achieve real and lasting change.

I am currently the Academic Director of a gender equity accreditation program at the University of Sydney that aims to improve the participation and retention of women in STEMM.

The Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) Program is a national program promoting gender equity and diversity in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM). It is based on a UK program, the Athena SWAN Charter, an evaluation and accreditation framework that aims to improve gender equity policies and practices and encourage real change in Institutions.  In the UK, Athena SWAN has broadened to include all academic disciplines and all staff and has improved gender and other diversity, increased women’s leadership roles and improved workplace culture for all staff – men and women, academic and professional.

I got involved with SAGE because I think it has real potential to change the current system. Bias against women is ingrained in our society, in our workplaces, our schools and our higher education institutions. We need disruptive systemic change so that women and girls feel safe, feel included and feel that they can contribute fully to whatever it is they desire to do.

Why is it essential for the playing field in STEMM to be more equal and gender diverse? What benefits can a diverse workplace bring to the table?

The danger posed is by a lack of diversity, and that comes in many forms, not just gender. There is a lot evidence, mostly from the corporate world, that diverse teams are more innovative and successful. When you have a homogenous group where everyone looks the same, the group will start to the act the same and become lazy. They will assume that they all think the same (even if they don’t) and will not communicate effectively. Visible diversity triggers better and more respectful communication – and we need more of it.

Everyone has the power to be an advocate for Diversity and Inclusion and improving Gender Equality is everyone’s responsibility. We need to make our systems and processes more transparent and move away from the ‘old boys club’ mentality where the same people are put forward for opportunities. Everyone is busy and time poor, it is not always easy to look more widely when selecting people for conferences/seminars, leadership positions or even collaborations.

And never assume a woman will say no because she has children/is too busy/not confident enough – ask her and let her say no!

Can you briefly outline where your research is headed over the next 12 months?

Our research investigates molecular pumps that are on the surface of all of our cells. These pumps move things like chemical messengers, nutrients and waste in and out of our cells and are known to be effected in many diseases including Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, stroke and cancer. We use a variety of biophysical and structural techniques to uncover the molecular mechanisms of these pumps and try to understand how they breakdown in disease. We then use this information to design new drugs that target these pumps to treat diseases including chronic pain and cancer.

My goals over the next 12 months and beyond are to continue doing interesting research that will have an impact on health; train, mentor and sponsor the many wonderful students and junior researchers I get to work with; and drive cultural change at my University and the higher education sector to create a more diverse and inclusive environment where everyone can thrive and contribute.

What words of advice would you give other women who are thinking of stepping into a career in STEMM?

STEMM needs you to help solve the complex problems of today’s world. My main advice is do what makes you happy. I know that sounds cliché, but if you love science, then follow your passion. Women can do it! There may not be as many role models for young women to look up to, but there are successful women in STEMM that are great at what they do. Expand your networks, find those role models and have coffee with people who inspire you, ask them how they got to be where they are today – the good, the bad and the ugly. Write down your career goals, make (several) plans, regularly re-evaluate those plans, support your female colleagues, and enjoy the journey.

Believe in yourself! You are good and deserve to be here. Network widely, develop peer support networks, find people that believe in you and will sponsor you. And if it is not working where you are, try to move or find a way to change your path. Don’t let ‘de’mentors prevent you from succeeding or make your life miserable.

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