AUSTRALIA’S Nobel prize-winning molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn lamented recently the professional difficulties facing female scientists – and a new study proves her right.
Women still cluster at the bottom of the scientific heap, even in fields such as biology where they are well represented, according to a report released yesterday by the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies.
In her report, Women in Science in Australia: Maximising Productivity, Diversity and Innovation, Professor Bell concludes that not only do women scientists get fewer senior jobs than men, they also earn less than their male counterparts, receive less recognition in measures of scientific excellence and hold fewer memberships in scientific academies.
Federation president Ken Baldwin said the progress of women in science had stalled over the past 15 years.
“Despite impressive improvement in the participation of women in science at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, the retention of women at senior levels in science and technology remains poor,” he said.
In 1996, for instance, women constituted 18.1 per cent of full-time professionals in design, engineering, science and transport. That grew to 22.3 per cent this year. But in 1996, women made up 19 per cent of full-time information and communication technologies professionals, dropping to 15.2 per cent last year.
Roughly 7 per cent of the members of Australia’s learned societies are female.
While Australia’s premier research body, the CSIRO, is led by Megan Clark, only 21 per cent of the organisation’s 1727research scientists are women, just 10 per cent of top salary earners are women, 8 per cent of 194 research managers are women and only three of the 12 members of the executive team are women.
Professor Bell found significant numbers of female scientists continue to report discrimination and harassment.
“Sadly, we haven’t come very far at all,” she said. “In fact, there’s been very little change in the patterns of participation and success in 15 years.”
Professor Bell offers a series of recommendations to tackle the multiple “micro disadvantages” women face from the earliest stages of their career. She suggests simple family-friendly practices such as not holding meetings before 9.15am or after 4.30pm, as well as scholarships and fellowships designed to attract and retain female scientists.
Federal Science Minister Kim Carr agreed with professors Baldwin and Bell that women’s poor representation in lead scientific roles was a matter of lost innovation as well as inequity.
“At last year’s Prime Minister’s Science Prize awards, I noted that if qualified women went on to do serious research as frequently as men do, we’d have up to 400 extra scientists a year working on the big problems facing Australia and the world,” he said. “That’s a lot of squandered talent.”
Senator Carr has pledged to make funding for research and innovation a priority, while supporting measures such as 75 per cent workloads for post-doctoral fellows at the Australian Research Council.