Women in the Scientific Research Workforce: Identifying and Sustaining the Diversity Advantage

Professor Sharon Bell is Deputy Vice Chancellor at Charles Darwin University, a Professorial Fellow at the LH Martin Institute at the University of Melbourne and Emeritus Professor at the University of Wollongong. She was Co-convenor of Universities Australia Executive Women (previously AVCC Senior Women’s Colloquium) 2005-2008. Sharon’s background is as a senior academic administrator, a documentary filmmaker and an anthropologist. She holds a PhD from the University of Sydney in the discipline of Anthropology. Over the past decade she has conducted research on gender equity in the Australian academy and authored the influential report Women in Science in Australia: Maximising Productivity, Diversity and Innovation. With Professor Lyn Yates from the University of Melbourne she is currently a Chief Investigator on an Australian Research Council Linkage Grant on Women in the Scientific Research Workforce: Identifying and Sustaining the Diversity Advantage.

This week Women in Science AUSTRALIA is excited to welcome a leader in the “women in science” research space, Professor Sharon Bell. This blog outlines her latest research funded by the Australian Research Council.

We gain insight into this project examining women in science Down Under and learn more about the “Gender Diversity Toolkit” currently being developed in partnership with the Bio21 Cluster (now Biomedical Research Victoria), the Royal Australian Chemical Institute and Science and Technology Australia.

The research described in the following article is supported by an ARC Linkage 2011 – 2014 Grant with Industry Partners the Bio21 Cluster, the Royal Australian Chemical Institute and Science and Technology Australia.

The research project Chief Investigators are Professors Sharon Bell and Lyn Yates. The host institution is The University of Melbourne.




Women now outnumber men in many Australian universities – over 50% of the student population in Australia is female and outstanding women are increasingly seen achieving at the highest levels and taking key roles in the fields of science and technology. The changed pattern of participation of women in tertiary education in Australia is so pronounced that the original ‘A Fair Chance for All’  (DEET, 1990) equity targets to:

  • increase the proportion of women in engineering courses to 15% by 1995
  • increase the number of women in other non-traditional areas to at least 40% by 1995, and
  • increase the number of women in postgraduate study, particularly in research, relative to the proportion of female undergraduates in each field by 1995

have been rendered invisible in our current equity policy environment even though the targets have not been met.

Nevertheless, a number of recent international studies (National Academies of Science or NAS, 2007; Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development or OECD, 2006) provide evidence of persistent patterns of horizontal segregation (by discipline) and vertical segregation (by level of seniority and measures of esteem) of women in the science research workforce. Data on participation in higher education in Australia graphically illustrates established patterns of low levels of participation in engineering and IT and low rates of retention and success in and beyond the post-doctoral phase for all other broad fields of science. Indeed the FASTS research shows that in 2007 women were represented at more than 40% in only 7 of the 29 Narrow Fields of Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) Education: Agriculture, Forestry Studies, Environmental Studies, Chemical Sciences, Earth Sciences, Biological Sciences and Other Natural and Physical Sciences (Bell et al., 2009).

As in the USA (Bailyn, 2003) low levels of female representation amongst academic staff consistently declining with seniority are endemic and persistent. In 2007 women constituted more than 50% of Natural and Physical Sciences bachelor degree completions but less than 15% of level D & E academic staff (DEEWR, 2008 &2009). The most frequently cited legacy of the FASTS report is the ‘infamous scissors graph’ in Fig. 1 below (2009,18):

Source: DEEWR Selected Higher Education Student Statistics 2007; Department of Education, Science and Training, Special Report, FTE Staff in AOU Groups, 2007.
Figure 1. Academic profiles by gender; natural and physical sciences 2007. Source: DEEWR Selected Higher Education Student Statistics 2007; Department of Education,
Science and Training, Special Report, FTE Staff in AOU Groups, 2007.

The overall sustained pattern of gender inequality is consistent with the international evidence base (National Science Foundation or NSF, 2009; NAS, 2007; OECD, 2006). It is also increasingly recognised that the apparent attrition of women from the scientific workforce impacts negatively on productivity and, through the consequent failure to achieve diversity, limits innovation (DEET, 1990; Bell et al., 2009; Hewlett et al, 2008; NAS 2007). Our American colleagues refer to this as the ‘Hidden Brain Drain’ (Hewlett et al., 2008) graphically illustrated in Fig. 2 by the representation of ‘Women who Quit’:

Figure 2: Female ‘Quit Rates’ Across SET.
Figure 2: Female ‘Quit Rates’ Across Science, Engineering and Technology (SET).

Although the FASTS report (Bell et al., 2009) was cautious not to equate lack of seniority with ‘quitting’ it was acknowledged that there is a pressing need for clear mapping of scientific career paths. Together with the systematic identification and elimination of barriers to women this is one component of potential strategies to identify and address aspects of science and technology organisational cultures and institutional structures that may differentially impact on women.

Concomitantly whilst considerable research has focused on women in SET disciplines in the academic sector, and there is readily available and robust data to underpin this research (Bell et al., 2009; Dever, 2006), women in science in industry have been largely ignored and their professional circumstances and capacity to contribute are less well understood. We also know very little about mobility between the academy, public sector and industry. This research was beyond the resourcing and scope of the FASTS Women in Science (2009) project. It is an omission readily acknowledged in international research on women in science (National Research Council, 2010; Hewlett et al., 2008; NAS, 2007). Consequently little is known about the careers of women in science outside the academy.

This research project seeks to understand more about the careers of women and men in the scientific research workforce, to inform both workforce planning and policy making in this area. Research in the USA has investigated why so many qualified women in the sciences, engineering and technology fields purportedly ‘quit’ their careers and proposed some solutions. Our research tests the assumptions behind such studies.



In 2012 the project commissioned analysis from the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) of pertinent data from three large data sets: the 2011 Census, the National Research Student Survey, and the DIISRTE Higher Education Staff and Student Data Collection for 2011.

An online survey of the target population was piloted by the project research team and then conducted from November 2012 to the end of February 2013, distributed via the industry partners and participant referrals. The survey generated over 1200 usable responses, 48% from men and 52% from women. The data has been analysed using SPSS software and detailed regression analysis of the survey data has been completed.

Eleven follow-up focus groups were held in Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne for a range of survey respondents who had indicated they would like to participate. Focus group respondents were clustered to obtain richer detail on issues flagged from the survey responses and large data analysis, prior to work on the toolkit. With the consent of participants discussions have been recorded, transcribed and translated to NVivo to facilitate thematic analysis.

A Gender Diversity Toolkit drawing from this evidence base is now under construction. The Toolkit aims to be a coherent set of resources and approaches to solving ‘a wicked problem’ (Rittel & Webber, 1973). The structure is designed to address critical audiences: Individuals and those in leadership positions at executive level and at team level. It is also designed to provide access to resources for professional associations and funding agencies.


Preliminary Findings

From the census data we can ascertain that in 2011 there were 22,315 individuals with postgraduate qualifications in chemical or biological sciences of which 10,622 were female (48%). Of these over 80% live in capital cities and 56% were born outside Australia (cf 34% of total population) – this percentage is higher in younger than in older age groups. Women are substantially less likely to be in the highest income category, and men reach higher income categories at a younger age.

Forty percent of all females qualified in biological or chemical sciences are aged under 30 years, and 6% of all males qualified in biological or chemical sciences are aged under 30 years (Fig. 3).

Figure 3: Age profile by sex of population of individuals qualified in Biological Sciences or Chemical Sciences, 2011 census data.
Figure 3: Age profile by sex of population of individuals qualified in Biological Sciences or Chemical Sciences, 2011 census data.

We know from the Postgraduate Students 2010 destinations survey of Higher Degree Research students undertaken by ACER in 2010 that of the 695 women (558 females undertaking studies in the fields of biology and 137 in chemical sciences) 64% ideally wanted to go directly into an academic position, but numbers considering a research career outside the academy increased as they moved closer to graduation.

The pattern of apparent lack of knowledge of research career pathways and employment conditions until the latter stages of the PhD was reinforced through the Project Survey which successfully captured respondents currently working in a research role (70%) and not currently working in a research role (30%).

From the research evidence (survey and focus groups) there are four significant and original findings:

  1. That contrary to the established literature (Hewlett et al, 2008) women do not ‘quit’ science. Rather they remain committed to science (focus group data) and they continue to use their knowledge and skills (survey data). Some go to extra-ordinary lengths to remain in the scientific research workforce or continue to be optimistic re re-engagement (focus groups). Women, particularly in the post-doctoral phase, transition to occupations that are ‘branches’ of science but in the dominant paradigms of STEM are not included – this raises questions re ‘the leaky pipeline’ (Mason, 2010) versus socially constructed concepts of science (Metcalf, 2010). Survey and focus group data provide a strong narrative about continuing commitment to science. Case and Richley (2013) propose the concept of ‘organic branching’, strongly interfaced with family formation.
  1. That the focus in the literature on organizational culture and ‘biological clocks,’ more recently framed as ‘the baby penalty,’ has distracted from the importance of employment practices and the impact of widespread insecure and fixed-term employment practices in the sector.
  1. That as the Academy trains its own workforce the transition from PhD to employment disguises organizational practices that, in other circumstances would be found to be unacceptable – the liminal doctoral and post-doctoral population defines industrial and professional practice as it both disguises inequitable employment practices relating to casual staff and also diffuses systematic identification of real academic workforce needs in terms of facilities, resources and staff development. Moreover the nature of the employment conditions and prospects of this ‘contingent workforce’ is not well-understood, or even known, to commencing PhD students the majority of whom continue to aspire to academic roles.
  1. That mobility between the Academy, industry and public sector employment evidences disciplinary specific patterns that point to contextualized strategies rather than ‘whole of science’ solutions.



Bailyn, L. (2003), ‘Academic Careers and Gender Equity: Lessons from MIT’, Gender, Work and Organization, Vol. 10, No. 2, pp. 137-153.

Bell, S. Halloran, K., Saw, J. & Yu Zhao (2009) Women in Science in Australia: Maximising Productivity, Diversity and Innovation, Canberra: FASTS.

Case, S & Richley, B (2013) ‘Gendered institutional research cultures in science: the post-doc transition for women scientists’ Community, Work and Family 16 (3) pp. 327-349

Department of Employment, Education and Training (DEET). (1990) A Fair Chance for All: Higher Education that’s within Everyone’s Reach, Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR). (2009) ‘Staff 2008: Selected higher education statistics’, Higher Education Statistics. From http://www.dest.gov.au/sectors/higher_education/publications_resources/profiles/Staff_2008_selected_higher_education_statistics.htm, retrieved 12 June 2009. Link inactive.

Dever, M., Morrison, Z., Dalton, B. and Tayton, S. (2006) “When Research Works for Women.” From http://www.adm.monash.edu.au/sss/equity-diversity/assets/docs/wlas/when-research-works.pdf retrieved 22 May 2009.

Hewlett, S. A., Luce, C. B., J. Servon, L. J., Sherbin, L., Shiller, P., Sosnovich, E., and Sumberg, K. (2008). The Athena Factor: Reversing the Brain Drain in Science, Engineering, and Technology, Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation.

Mason, A., Goulden, M., Frasch, K. ‘Keeping Women in the Science Pipeline’ Workplace Flexibility, November 2010. From http://workplaceflexibility.org/images/uploads/program_papers/mason_-_keeping_women_in_the_science_pipeline.pdf, retrieved 13 November 2010.

Metcalf (2010) ‘Stuck in the pipeline: ‘A critical review of STEM workforce literature’ UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies 6 (2)

National Academies: Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy. (2007) Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering, Washington D.C.: The National Academies Press.

National Research Council of the National Academies (2010), Gender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Faculty, Washington D.C., USA, The National Academies Press.

National Science Foundation (NSF). (2009) ADVANCE: Increasing the Participation and Advancement of Women in Academic Science and Engineering Careers. National Science Foundation. From http://www.nsf.gov/publications/pub_summ.jsp?ods_key=nsf0941, retrieved 13 July 2009.

Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD). (2006) Women in Scientific Careers: Unleashing the Potential, OECD Publishing.

Rittel, H.W.J. and Webber, M.M. (1973) ‘Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning’, Policy Sciences, 4 (2); 155-169.

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