Ambassadors leading change for women in science

March 2015

Science is needed by the world if we're going to be successful as a human race. Science needs women if we're going to embrace the full human potential," said Club Melbourne Ambassador Dr Cathy Foley. 

Sunday 8 March marked International Women’s Day. As the Deputy Director and Science Director at CSIRO Manufacturing Flagship, Dr Foley advocates for accountability in organisations to ensure women are recognised for their potential to lead, that opportunities are presented and management practices are in place to address diversity and equity every month of the year, not just in March.

A number of high profile Club Melbourne Ambassadors have recently been advocating for change on this issue. Professor Kathryn North AM, Director at Murdoch Childrens Research Institute (MCRI), has been a voice for women in leadership. It was therefore unsurprising that she was one of the five Parkville-based institute directors who backed the Women in Science Parkville Precinct (WISPP) initiative launched late last year.  The directors of The Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, The Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health and MCRI stepped up in a collaborative effort to boost numbers of women in leadership and improve gender equity across the precinct.

“Many individual research organisations have implemented programs to redress the gender imbalance at senior levels of their workforce,” said Professor North.

“However, many of the issues that limit the progression of women in science are sector-wide problems. By bringing five research organisations together we can tackle bigger and broader issues than any one organisation can resolve.”

Ambassador Professor Sharon Lewin reflected on the opportunity she has as the Director of Melbourne’s newest research organisation The Doherty Institute.  

“We have the opportunity to establish forward thinking policies and a foundation of a positive institutional culture – one that is nourishing for the ideas and work of everybody, regardless of gender,” Professor Lewin said.

The action isn’t just focused on Parkville. The popular online forum, Women in Science Australia, which was formed in Melbourne last year, aims to connect women and men at all stages of their careers who support diversity and equity in science, medicine, mathematics, engineering and technology right across Australia. A growing number of high profile Club Melbourne Ambassadors are members of Women in Science Australia, demonstrating their support for a greater awareness and adoption of equity and diversity behaviours within Victorian organisations sharing the message through social media.

On a national level the NHMRC reformed the Women in Science Working Committee late last year.  The committee is representative of the national science sector with Professor Bob Williamson AO, a Victorian member of the committee and a well-recognised champion of women in science and medicine for many years.

This brings us back to Dr Foley’s key point in her Tedx Talk: because of the important role science plays in the continuing success of the human race, we need to embrace the full potential of men and women. Currently this means closing this gap in leadership positions for women.

An option discussed at the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) Forum in November last year, is introducing gender equity awards systems for institutions. One model being looked at is the Athena SWAN Charter, used in the United Kingdom. Under this model, institutions are required to collect and analyse data, and then submit for awards to recognise their commitment to, and progress in, equality and diversity. They also submit plans to address under representation.

It’s pleasing to see so many Club Melbourne Ambassadors, women and men, bringing this issue into the public focus, lending their name and support, speaking, writing blogs and encouraging change.

The creation of these forums and charters, and having high-profile professionals including Club Melbourne Ambassadors, keeps the issue at the forefront of science agendas and is the only way to elicit the change required to bring women into, and keep them in leaderships positions, in STEM industries.