Addressing sySTEMMic failures

Liz Sullivan, Shari Forbes and Wei Wang. Photo by Shane Lo.

Liz Sullivan, Shari Forbes and Wei Wang. Photo by Shane Lo.

In summary: 
  • Across UTS, women account for 36 per cent of all associate professors and 31 per cent of professors; that’s well above the Australian university average of 20 per cent
  • Programs like UTS’s Research Equity Initiative and the Australian SAGE Athena SWAN pilot are helping UTS lead the march towards gender equity in research

Today, women account for only one quarter of the science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) workforce. In Australian universities, approximately 20 per cent of senior researchers are female. UTS, though, is leading the march towards equity with policies and support programs aimed at female researchers, and by signing on to the Athena SWAN Pilot - Australia's largest gender equity program to date.

Though women have a long history of high achievement in STEMM disciplines, they also have a long history of being sidelined. While inventors like Thomas Edison (who developed the lightbulb in 1880) are household names, others like Margaret A Wilcox (car heater, 1893), Anna Connelly (fire escape, 1887) and Letitia Geer (single-hand-operated medical syringe, 1899) rarely rate a mention. 

“Recently, we've seen some of our female STEMM researchers received fantastic recognition for their achievements,” says Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Glenn Wightwick. “But overall, women in STEMM are still under-represented and under-recognised.”

Recent individual successes include Director of the ithree institute Professor Liz Harry and Director of the Innovation and Enterprise Research Laboratory Professor Mary-Anne Williams, who were recognised among SBS's 2016 list of six Impressive Aussie Women Scientists. Likewise, Deputy Director of the Institute for Sustainable Futures Professor Cynthia Mitchell was named one of the Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence last September.

Across UTS, women account for 36 per cent of all associate professors and 31 per cent of professors. “That's well above the Australian university average of 20 per cent,” says Wightwick, “but it falls short of gender parity, which is what we're committed to achieving.

“That's why we established the Research Equity Initiative (REI).”

This multi-layered initiative, led by UTS's Equity and Diversity Unit (E&DU), aims to implement university-wide support for academics, and some research students, with carer responsibilities at key stages in their careers; explore and employ tailored actions to address gender disparity in research activities, and; improve data collection, monitoring and reporting on gender equity in research at UTS.

Sybille Frank. Photo by Shane Lo. Sybille Frank. Photo by Shane Lo.

“We're looking at issues affecting early-career researchers and mid-career researchers as well as senior staff to see how we can better support and sustain people here,” says Equity and Diversity Project Officer Sybille Frank.

So far, under the REI, the university has developed an equity program for all higher degree research (HDR) supervisors, piloted a mentoring program for female HDR students, introduced leadership training for female academics, created a Women Researcher at UTS network and undertaken an annual forum to highlight the achievements of, and promote awareness of, issues affecting women in research.

The initiative has also led to changes in recruitment practices, new professional development workshops and new financial support programs.

These include a Childcare and Carers Support Fund and a UTS Research Equity Fellowship, valued at $60,000, for mid-career researchers with care responsibilities. 

“With some academic research, especially in STEMM areas, you can't stop when you have a baby. Even in other disciplines, many researchers are unable to put publications or research projects on hold without seriously affecting their research careers,” explains Frank.

It's a trend also seen by Professor in the Centre for Forensic Science, and Chair of the Faculty of Science's Academic Women in Science Committee, Shari Forbes.

“In academia, because we don't work a nine-to-five job, having a good work/life balance is always a challenge. It's a particular challenge for females in a carer role, but we've found a lot of our young, male, early-career researchers are finding the exact same challenges looking after children and not having time to publish.”

The Academic Women in Science Committee was started by the faculty to address gender equity gaps identified by UTS's Women in Research report. (The committee is only one of a number of initiatives developed by individual faculties based on their local results.) 

“We started that committee to try to understand what the numbers look like in terms of gender equity in our faculty, and then specifically, were there differences in the way males and females perform in research?” explains Forbes.

Over the past year, the committee has put forth numerous recommendations to address the imbalance. However, both Forbes and Frank agree the next big changes are likely to come from the Athena SWAN Pilot project. 

Athena SWAN began in the UK in 2005 to improve the representation of women in STEMM areas.

In 2015, Australia became the first franchise of Athena SWAN outside the UK, thanks to a pilot program introduced through the Academy of Science's Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) committee. There are currently 32 research institutions, incorporating 24 universities - including UTS - in the Australian SAGE Athena SWAN pilot.

The awards, which are assessed by an independent body, include bronze, silver and gold. Organisations must qualify for an institutional bronze award before they become eligible to receive further bronze, silver or gold awards at an organisational or departmental (faculty) level. The success rate for first-time applications is only about 50 per cent.

Professor of Public Health and Assistant Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Liz Sullivan is the Chair of UTS's Athena SWAN self-assessment team (SAT). The SAT is responsible for examining UTS's gender equity in research data, preparing a report on the university's performance and reporting those findings to the Athena SWAN assessors. The SAT will also develop the goals and action plan needed for UTS to improve its performance.

“UTS has a very strong history of really good initiatives for gender equity, but there is always more we can do,” says Sullivan.

“As part of Athena SWAN, we'll be developing a plan of action to look at how we can put in place initiatives to try to address the gender inequity that is found.”

“It will be a game changer,” adds Frank. “Athena SWAN can get us all to look at the subtleties in how we distinguish between and interact with each other in a diverse workplace. And with that, deeper changes are possible.”

Frank says a 10-year review of Athena SWAN in the UK, “found the benefits for female staff were clear. But another key finding was that there were benefits for men too - workplace culture became better and that makes for a happier and more productive workplace for all.”


Liz Sullivan. Photo by Shane Lo. Liz Sullivan. Photo by Shane Lo.

Liz Sullivan

Liz Sullivan is not only the Assistant Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) and Chair of UTS's Athena Swan SAT, she's an internationally esteemed public health physician too.

Sullivan began her research career in 1987 by undertaking a Master of Public Health. 

Today, she says, “My particular area of interest is vulnerable reproductive populations. I've spent a long time doing research on mums and babies and in recent years I've started doing a lot more research in justice health.
“The first study I did in this area, in 2009, was looking at mothers and gestation in prison. That really raised so many issues that hadn't been fully researched and I thought needed an evidence base to be able to impact policy and practice.”

It's a natural fit for Sullivan, who has “always been interested in women's empowerment and education”.

“In developing countries women start childbearing at a very young age, and that makes it more difficult, historically, for them to have further education.”

Of course, childbearing can impact women in the developed world too.

Sullivan, a mother of three (the youngest is now 19), worked full-time throughout her children's youth. She was only able to access paid maternity leave following her last child's birth.

“I always wanted a family, so that was, and is, very important to me.

“But it was extremely challenging and exhausting, and I was very lucky I had a highly supportive partner and parents.”

These days, says Sullivan, “I think we're a bit smarter about what you need to progress. Initiatives around paid maternity leave and re-entry where there's support for researchers to maintain their research while they go on carers leave and to help when they come back are certainly much more common. And that's enormously important.”

Sullivan's suggestion to female researchers: “Sit down with someone be it your supervisor, colleague or mentor and work out a five-year plan.

“Once you've done that, it's much easier to identify what you need in terms of training, resources, collaboration and partnerships as well as opportunities to participate in committees, external activities and events.

“One of the wonderful things about the STEMM disciplines,” she says, “is there are endless possibilities.

“When you look at younger children at a science museum, we see both girls and boys equally enthused. But somewhere along the lines, that gets lost.”

She says, “We need to remember university is the end point, not the beginning. We need to ensure high-level maths and science are attractive so we retain younger females in these disciplines and so there's an opportunity for them, when they come to university, to pursue those careers.”

Shari Forbes. Photo by Shane Lo. Shari Forbes. Photo by Shane Lo.

Shari Forbes

“I wish I had a really great story about something that sparked my interest in science,” confesses Professor in the Centre for Forensic Science Shari Forbes, “but in all honesty, I was just always interested in science at school.

“Strangely, the subjects I did best at in the HSC were Japanese and economics, but it was science that motivated me.”

Today, Forbes, who grew up on a property “right in the outback in north-west New South Wales”, is best known for an entirely different kind of 'farm' the 48-hectare Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER). 

“Most of my work is to do with odour profiling, and predominantly as it applies to forensic evidence,” explains Forbes. “What that means is I'm particularly interested in the odour produced by forensic evidence and how detector dogs use that odour to locate the item of interest. 

“Because of the AFTER facility, most of my expertise is in human decomposition and working with cadaver dogs. But I also do research with other types, such as drug detection, explosive detection and accelerant dogs.”

Forbes has also forayed into medical applications for odour analysis and how odour profiling might be used to identify species of trafficked animals.

“Everything I do is driven by police questions, by their needs, what they want to see out in the field. 

“I think I'm fortunate that forensic science is female dominated. Although I do recognise that when working with the police, it's still very much a male-dominated career. But we're starting to see that change.” So too, says Forbes, is academia. 

“I think having female role models is important for demonstrating to female students what you can accomplish.

“People think 'chemistry', and they think you're sitting in a dark, dungeon lab. But most chemistry degrees have a really clear application.”

It's something Forbes, who completed her undergraduate and honours chemistry degrees at UTS (as well as her PhD), knows all-too-well. “I got into my area of research through my honours year. When I looked at the list of honours projects, there was a project about decomposition in cemeteries and I just thought, 'Oh that sounds so fascinating!'.”

Forbes says excitement is key to success. “We need to do anything we can to get people interested in science, because while there's an issue with women in STEMM, there's an issue, generally, with getting people interested in science as well.”

AFTER funded by: Australian Research Council Linkage Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities scheme and UTS, University of Wollongong, University of Sydney, Australian National University, University of Canberra, University of New England, Australian Federal Police, NSW Police, Victoria Police, ANSTO, NSW Forensic and Analytical Science Services, Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine

This research funded by: Australian Research Council Future Fellowship

Wei Wang. Photo by Shane Lo. Wei Wang. Photo by Shane Lo.

Wei Wang

Growing up in Jinan, China, halfway between Shanghai and Beijing, Wei Wang's childhood was idyllic.

“My father was a university teacher and my mother was a leader in another university, so we lived just within Shandong University,” explains the PhD candidate in the Centre for Quantum Computation and Intelligent Systems.

“I was an only child, so I often played by myself. I was very interested in biology, so I would explore the grounds of the university and look at the animals. That gave me a lot of motivation to become a scientist.”

While Wang first dreamed of becoming a doctor, as a young adult she opted to study computer science.

“When I did my bachelor's degree, I learned about artificial intelligence. My teacher was a very, very enlightened person - he gave us a lot of case studies and those inspired me,” she reveals.

Fast forward 17 years, and Wang has just submitted her PhD thesis. Wang's research (which saw her receive a prestigious IBM Fellowship in 2013) led to the creation of a framework that could be used to develop “social networking for robots”.

“In the future, robots will be able to learn skills through their peers in a virtual environment. They'll be able to figure out new solutions to new tasks, even if those tasks haven't been pre-programmed into the robot,” she explains. “They won't need any extra intervention, they can just evolve.” 

While Wang is currently weighing up her options post-PhD, she's hopeful of joining an international collaboration project that enables her to implement her framework in a real robot environment. 

“I'm very interested in discovering new things,” says Wang. This enthusiasm, she says, has been fostered by her PhD supervisor, Director of Disruptive Innovation and Director of the Innovation and Enterprise Research Laboratory (The Magic Lab) Professor Mary-Anne Williams.

“I feel very lucky to be a student of Mary-Anne's. She can explain very complicated things in a very simple way and gives you the courage to move forward.

“You know what she said about doing research? 'Just use your imagination'. They're such magical words,” enthuses Wang.

“One of my dreams is to become a female mentor, like Mary-Anne. Research isn't just about publishing papers; it's also about passing on the scientific spirit and methodologies. You know, a good mentor can make a huge difference in your life.

“And in my field, it's quite rare to see female researchers.”

This research funded by: UTS, IBM PhD Fellowship and the Australian Research Council