Inspiring women in science

The last week has been a good one for women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) – an unusually positive spin for an area that is usually rather doom and gloom (e.g., this, this and this earlier blog post). And I am fortunate to be part of some of these happy happenings.

The Turnbull Government announced their new National Innovation and Science Agenda, with a strong emphasis on bringing women into STEM disciplines and keeping them ($13M target funds, including supporting for the Science in Australia Gender Equity pilot, SAGE, in which Deakin is participating). This move is in response to the rather poor stats on gender equity across STEM: only 1/5 senior research positions are held by women; although in some disciplines, women comprise at least half of undergrads and postgraduate students, even postdocs, women aren’t gaining tenure, the permanent positions that give job security and platform to develop independent research careers.

Slide1
Percentage of women (purple) and men (orange) by level in ecology at 12 Australian Universities. Thanks Gerry Ryan for the graphics.

This is particularly the case within my own area of ecology; we collected data from University websites for 12 Australian Universities on ecologists, looking at gender and level – the results are shown on the right, and are quite typical for the sciences. The violin plots show individual universities – several have no women at Prof level (E), although there are approx equal numbers at levels A and B, at postdoc level. The proportion of women falls away at level C (senior lecturer), when positions tend to move from contract to ongoing.

Our data on gender by level for ecologists in Australian universities formed part of an exciting and ground-breaking plenary on gender equity in ecology at the Ecological Society of Australia meeting, presented by Prof Emma Johnston (who you may know from earlier blog posts, and who is also my sister-in-law) and Prof Mark Burgman. A team of researchers collected new data and collated existing information on gender and ecology. The plenary was very well received, and was storified. Although much of the data presented was pretty dire, there are some very positive initiatives and moves for change.

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Receiving my Inspiring Women award from the Governor of Victoria, Linda Dessau. Photo: veski.org.au

One such initiative is a new scheme called the Inspiring Women Fellowships, the results of which were announced last week. And I am delighted and honoured to be one of the recipients! The inaugural Inspiring Women Fellowships are funded by the Victorian Government through the Office of the Lead Scientist and delivered by veski. The fellowship scheme directly addresses the loss of women between the postdoctoral and tenured stages, and provides support for outstanding female researchers as they juggle career and carer commitments, keeping them competitive in their fields of endeavour.

The other inaugural Inspiring Women Fellows are:

  • Dr Maria Liaskos from The Hudson Institute of Medical Research’s Centre for Innate Immunity and Infectious Diseases who will hire a research assistant to continue the momentum of her current research program.
  • Dr Catherine Satzke from the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute who will remain connected with her work in the Infection and Immunity area and the Pneumococcal Research group by employing a research assistant who can act as her ‘hands’ for research while she is away from the laboratory.
  • Dr Natalie Hannan to support her continued work at The University of Melbourne’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and allow her to travel to, and actively participate in, key international meetings with the support of a carer for her young family.
Veski
(L-R) Philip Dalidakis, Dr Maria Liaskos, Governor Linda Dessau, Dr Catherine Satzke, me, Prof Ian Smith, Dr Natalie Hannan, and Dr Leonie Walsh. Photo: veski.org.au

Between us we had 9 children aged between 6 years and 5 weeks. But as is too often seen in women at this stage of our careers, I was the only one with an ongoing position within a university – my fellow fellows are all still in contract-based research fellow positions (although Catherine and Maria are both in Research Institutes where very few have permanent positions). I hope that this fellowship can provide the momentum for these outstanding women to gain tenured positions to continue excelling in their research.

In addition to providing recognition of excellent women scientists and the battles they face as Science Mums, one of the most important elements of this fellowship is design of the scheme. The flexible funding of up to $150,000 each over three years, as well as support from their institutions both financially and in developing leadership potential, allows the women to identify how the funding will best support their research and careers – amazing! For example, hiring a research assistant to keep research momentum through breaks and part-time work, travel to international conferences and childcare.

The Inspiring Women Fellowship will provide me with funding for two main initiatives, co-funded by Deakin University (through central funds, the Faculty of Science, Engineering and Built Environment, and the Centre for Integrative Ecology). First it will support a postdoctoral researcher for 18 months, driving forward my research and building my group. Second it will fund two workshops for a major project I’m involved in, the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems, which you can read more about here, here and here. The first workshop was held a few weeks ago, 11-13 Nov, at Deakin University, and brought together a global team (below) to develop a strategic plan to assess the state of the world’s ecosystems. The second workshop, to be held in 2016, will plan an Australian Red List of Ecosystems.

RLEmeeting
The workshop team developing a strategic plan for the Red list of Ecosystems globally (L-R):
Arild Lindgaard, Dan Ierodiaconou, Ed Barrow, Richard Kingsford, Nick Murray, Jess Rowland, James Watson, Carlos Zambrana-Torrelio, Irene Zager, Lucie Bland, Emily Nicholson, James Fitzsimons, Emma Burns, Rebecca Miller, Tom Brooks, Tina Oliviera-Miranda, Tracey Regan, David Keith

Another amazing bit of news for women in science is Jane Elith‘s extraordinary and well-deserved success in awards: first the Prime Minister’s Prizes – The Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the year, which I was lucky enough to attend; then the Fenner Medal from the Australian Academy of Sciences (unrelated but also named for Frank Fenner). I wouldn’t want to be up against her for anything at the moment.

So 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 outlined above are a large part of this. It is a very exciting time to be a woman in science, or a bloke for that matter.

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