A PROFESSOR of science at one of Australia’s sandstone universities told me a couple of years ago that his department head would routinely schedule departmental meetings for 8 am or 4.30 pm.
My informant had got into the habit of hitting “reply all” to emails about meetings to let the entire department know he could not attend at those times as he would be doing the school run.
Female colleagues thanked him privately, saying they felt unable to challenge their boss’s meeting schedule for fear this would further marginalise them in a male-dominated department.
The meeting schedule could have been mere thoughtlessness — although the man who told me about it didn’t think so — but it highlights one of the many ways a workplace can fail to encourage diversity in its employees.
Despite some standout exceptions, Australia has generally not done well in supporting women’s careers in the so-called STEMM fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine.
“Most science disciplines are dominated by men in senior positions, despite the fact that roughly equal numbers of men and women study science and start science careers”, the president of the Australian Academy of Science, Professor Andrew Holmes, said last week, launching an initiative designed to redress the imbalance.
More than 30 universities and other science organisations have signed up to the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) pilot program, which will rate participating organisations for gender equity and help them design strategies to promote and retain women.
Women account for more than half of PhD science graduates and early career researchers in this country, but hold only 17% of senior positions in the field, SAGE figures show.
In the US, research published last week showed the proportion of women achieving the rank of full professor in medical schools had not increased since the 1980s: only 12% of women had achieved that rank, compared with 29% of men.
There are, no doubt, many reasons for such disparities. You might, for example, expect there to be a time lag in representation at senior levels if fewer women entered a field in the past, though it’s worth noting that the US researchers found a substantial gap between the sexes even after adjustment for age, experience, publications and other factors.
Women’s careers may also have been more disrupted by family responsibilities than men’s. Of course, not scheduling meetings at 8 am might help by making workplaces more family friendly for both sexes.
But it does seem other factors are at play too. Among themselves, women researchers often lament the persistence of the “boys’ club” culture that offers more mentoring and opportunities to early-career men, fails to accommodate the needs of parents with young children and tolerates low-level or even overt sexism in the workplace.
And it’s more than talk — other US research published last week found junior women in biomedical research faculties received significantly less start-up support from their institutions than men.
Recent allegations of rampant sexual harassment in surgical circles are particularly shocking, though the Royal Australian College of Surgeons is making efforts to address these issues.
There have been persistent concerns too about what some see as entrenched gender bias in the peer-review process of some scientific journals.
Dr Tina Iverson of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in the US conducted unconventional research on that subject when she switched from submitting papers under her full name to using initials only.
Obviously, this has all the limitations of an n = 1 study, but the dramatic increase in Dr Iverson’s acceptance rate when she was not immediately identifiable as female does raise questions about the objectivity of the process.
It’s great to see the Academy of Science taking the lead in addressing some of these issues.
After all, as Professor Holmes said last week, it’s not just a question of fairness: “the loss of women from science also represents a very substantial cost to Australia in training, talent and opportunities for scientific innovation”.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.