'A gender gap in STEM exists, but policies to close it do not'

30 JULY 2019

'A gender gap in STEM exists, but policies to close it do not'

The indisputable under-representation of women in academia’s science-based fields is paralleled by the absence of ways to permanently alleviate this discrepancy.

  • Charles Sturt University academic considers solutions to gender-based disparity in science-based fields in academia
  • Recent report suggests ‘women are under-represented in most scientific disciplines’
  • Policy shift to address gender gap in research fields has been insufficient

A recently published comprehensive international report describes the indisputable under-representation of women in academia’s science-based fields, commonly known as ‘STEM’ (science, technology, engineering, mathematics).

Associate Dean Academic in the Charles Sturt University Faculty of Science Associate Professor Cate Thomas (pictured) says what the report didn’t outline is the ways to permanently alleviate this discrepancy.

Professor Thomas commented on the study ‘Historical comparison of gender inequality in scientific careers across countries and disciplines’ (July 2019), which examined over 1.5 million gender-identified authors whose publishing career ended between 1955 and 2010, covering 83 countries and 13 disciplines.

“I stress that no other report or plan has adequately outlined how to redress this imbalance,” Professor Thomas said.

She notes the report’s first sentence makes the claim  ‘ … there is extensive, yet fragmented, evidence of gender differences in academia suggesting that women are under-represented in most scientific disciplines, publish fewer articles throughout a career, and their work acquires fewer citations’.

“While I agree with the above statement, it’s important to ask: does the report go far enough to highlight the more systemic factors that impact on women in STEM, and in the broader higher education context?” Professor Thomas said.

“There may be reasons for this, like research and employment breaks to meet carer and family requirements, or a perpetuation of an industry culture that favours one gender above others.

“Nurturing more junior female researchers and academics may be one way of ensuring a higher level of representation and output in research and academia, but let’s talk about the more structural issues that are impacting here.

“Are women still perceiving the glass ceiling and the negative self-belief of their own abilities to succeed? Are they moving to teaching or education-focussed positions in a realisation that career breaks are detrimental to their research or trajectory in academia?”

Professor Thomas said there has been a policy shift in the attempt to redress these questions, however it still appears to be lacking.

“Policy needs to go further and consider that it is a necessity for the majority of women to take a career break for child-rearing and family care issues,” she said.

“This is a given, so why is it that academia and industry still hasn’t supported and enabled women to achieve in STEM fields?

“Why has the notion of relative achievement based on opportunity stalled?

“If there were adequate opportunities to demonstrate achievement based on opportunity to achieve - not on time served - then things may start to change.

“If this was the case, more women who are still underrepresented in the STEM field may see that they are no longer at a disadvantage when it comes to ability-based employment and for progressing along the promotion pathway.”

Professor Thomas said it is no longer acceptable for a gender disparity on any level of academia, whether it be pay, career breaks (including a gender bias against men - to not be a primary carer and their right to be so), or flexibly family-friendly workplaces.

“So, what is next?”, she asks.

“There are some policies in place to break down the glass ceiling and the traditional patriarchal system, however they are not enough.

“If we are serious, then the go-forward view is not one that suggests the need to ‘fix women’, but rather to shift the focus to the systems that enable greater participation and representation.

“To increase representation, a strong leadership ethos is also required which allows the discussion of issues and using debate as a vehicle for positive (yet disruptive) change.

“Going back to my earlier comment about nurturing female early- and mid-career academics is one thing, but encouraging women in leadership to make broad global impacts on both the politics and systems of academia might be more beneficial.

“As a woman in a science faculty, and a university-based convener of Athena SWAN (a charter established in 2005 that recognises and celebrates good practices in higher education and research institutions towards the advancement of gender equality), I can see change resulting from a range of strategies, such as ‘unconscious bias’ training and the development of a values–driven culture.

“We still have a way forward to redress gender equity in STEM.

“Perhaps the first step is getting everyone to recognise they have a role in change, no matter how small.”

‘Historical comparison of gender inequality in scientific careers across countries and disciplines’ by Junming Huang, Alexander J. Gates, Roberta Sinatra and Albert-Laszlo Barabasi was published in the Cornell University e-print service arXiv (Tuesday 9 July 2019).

Media Note:

To arrange interviews with Associate Professor Cate Thomas, contact Dave Neil at Charles Sturt Media on mobile 0407 332 718 or news@csu.edu.au

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