Tuesday 27 September 2016

Connecting Women in STEMM - a great meeting by all accounts

Not all of us were able to make Women in STEMM Australia's inaugural meeting this month, luckily though, Samantha Hood and Sarah Lau have written a fantastic report of the symposium - do have a read!

There are many problems the next generation faces, such as climate change, rapidly growing energy, water and food demands, and increasing demand for healthcare with ageing populations. To solve these problems we need all hands on deck - we should all do our best to work to ensure that everyone who wants to be working in STEMM* can become the problem solvers the future needs. Fundamentally, the lack of women working in STEMM fields is a failure to harness all of the available talent.

Recently in Melbourne, we attended the inaugural Connecting Women in STEMM Symposium, hosted at RMIT. The first meeting of its kind in Australia, the Symposium supported networking for women in STEMM - and sought to address the lack of women in leadership roles in these fields. The Symposium’s attendees included people from both industry and academia who are working towards gender equity.

We are currently a PhD students studying physics at the University of Queensland, working within the ARC Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems (EQuS). EQuS sent 7 members of the Centre to attend the Symposium and we are delighted that EQuS is being refunded by the ARC - their commitment to diversity and professional development is invaluable in creating wonderful physicists that keep Australia competitive in quantum science.

One of the best things to come out of this Symposium was the emphasis on developing professional networks so that we can learn from one another to implement best-practices. Retention of women in STEMM is complicated, and often over simplified. It’s not just childcare, unconscious bias, or a lack of confidence that holds women back, but a combination of these factors and so many more. Improvements in gender equity in STEMM fields is slow going, and the slow pace can be frustrating. So when we can find working examples of successful policies and practices we should learn from them.

The focus of the Symposium’s first session was the the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) program. SAGE seeks to address gender inequality on a University wide level, by setting realistic goals and requiring institutions to critically assess their commitment to improving equity. SAGE recognises institutions improving their gender diversity with awards - the original program in the UK (Athena Swan) saw medical bodies requiring a certain level of diversity as a funding requirement. On a School/Faculty level, it’s really hard to make changes to the workplace to accommodate more flexibility due to bureaucracy and limited funds. This is one reason why this program is so promising. It was even more encouraging to hear about how the pilot is being implemented and accepted around Australia - the awards are currently unrelated to funding outcomes so that the problem of underrepresentation of women can be acknowledged and addressed for the right reasons without becoming a box-ticking exercise.

Best practices in the workplace was the focus of the Symposium’s second session. Panelists included Associate Professor MarnieBlewitt from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) of Medical Research and Professor John Carroll from Monash’s Biomedical School, discussing family practices and unconscious bias training respectively. WEHI has introduced parenting rooms for their employees who might need to bring in a sick child to work, and plan to improve their maternal and paternal leave, as well as have on-site childcare**. Prof. Carroll discussed increasing awareness of unconscious bias in his School by hiring a team to survey the staff, many of whom agreed that as a result of the training, they were more aware of inequality in the workplace. On a smaller scale, implementing harassment policies and codes of conduct for workplace meetings was a suggestion from the crowd that can be easily implemented, and shows that the employer cares about equity and supports their staff.

Another great thing about the Symposium was getting to see all of the amazing work happening across Australia (and internationally) to encourage high school girls in STEMM. These include mentoring, and passionate and inspiring outreach programs such as RoboGals and TechGirls. While the solution to the lack of women in STEMM is unknown, a good starting place is addressing attitudes and improving engagement at an early age, which is exactly what these programs aim to do.

At the other end of the spectrum, we found it really helpful as young scientists to have role models to look up to who have managed to navigate the system. In particular, there was one session dedicated to sharing the career journeys of various women in science. ‘Inspiring’ was the word heard all around the room at the end of the session, not only because of their perseverance in the face of many obstacles, but also how they demonstrate the possibility and value of women in leadership in STEMM.

There’s never been a better time to be a woman working in physics. Raised awareness of the challenges unique to women in STEMM fields has inspired international efforts to ensure that women are reaching their career potential more than ever before. Meetings like this Symposium are a great way to accelerate progress in equality by sharing ideas, and I am looking forward to seeing many more sessions in the future!

Samantha Hood and Sarah Lau

*Science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine

** While the support of flexible work environments was wonderful for many, it’s important to remember that not everyone wants children. Emphasising the importance of role models and support for the LGBTIQ community would be a wonderful idea for future meetings.