Women Face a Thicket of Obstacles

Susan Pond
Dr Susan Pond AM, FTSE

Dr Susan Pond AM, MD DSc, FTSE is the Vice President of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, and serves on the Boards of Innovation Australia and Biotron Ltd. She is also Adjunct Professor at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney where she leads the alternative transport fuels initiative. Susan received her Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery with first class Honours from the University of Sydney and a Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of New South Wales. Her current interests include the development of cost-competitive, low emissions transport fuels, particularly for sectors with critical needs, such as aviation, mining, defence and shipping.

Gender equality in science, technology and engineering will be a long process

Women in science, technology and engineering in Australia face a thicket of obstacles in achieving their potential and using their skills to boost Australian innovation and productivity.

In the June 2014 edition of Issues magazine, Marguerite Evans-Galea and Oliver Jones urged us to “tell all young girls (and boys) in Australia that they too can find alternative energy solutions, design the bridges of tomorrow, explore the origins of the universe and develop treatments for incurable diseases”. The Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) agrees.

ATSE Fellows are celebrated for their achievements in applied sciences, technology and engineering. In 2010, the Academy recognised and took steps to achieve significant and sustainable increase in the representation of women in leadership positions and redress the gender imbalance within its own ranks.

As the first step, the Board endorsed and published the ATSE Gender Equity Policy Statement and then set about ensuring that women were well-represented on ATSE’s Board of Directors and major committees. On most occasions, all that was required to achieve this goal was to slow down the thought processes when names were being considered for positions and raise the question: which women are (also) eligible?

The percentage of women on ATSE’s Board has increased steadily from 10% (one of 10) in 2009 to 50% this year. None of the chairs of ATSE’s six state divisions were women in 2009, but 2014 saw the election of three female chairs. Women now chair three of the seven ATSE Forums, which focus on specific topics such as energy, water and agriculture.

Another major initiative has been to raise the number and percentage of women elected each year to the Fellowship. In 2011 the Board set a target of 33% of the new Fellows elected to be women. The assessment of merit was not changed for female nominees. The target was set on the basis that the pool of meritorious women was not being tapped for nomination.

The results were striking. In 2012 and 2013, the 33% target was shown to be realistic. The percentage of women Fellows elected increased from 16% in 2011 to 28% in 2012 and 31% in 2013. The target remains in place for 2014.

We still have a long way to go. Women only make up 10% of the ATSE Fellowship. The successes in increasing the number of women elected as new Fellows over the past 2 years will need to be repeated again and again to achieve balance in the total Fellowship.

ATSE has not stopped at its own four walls. It is the driving force for the Science and Technology Education Leveraging Relevance (STELR) program. This hands-on, in-curriculum program for all Year 9 and 10 students encourages exploration of the wonders and applications of science and technology. At least 200,000 students, equal numbers of boys and girls, have completed the STELR program during the past 4 years. STELR modules are gender-neutral. The use of relevant contexts and hands-on inquiry-based activities engages both girls and boys. Embedded activities analysing career profiles have raised the awareness of girls of the value of studying mathematics and science at the upper secondary level of schools and of careers in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

ATSE joins forces to promote gender equality with the other Australian academies and national and international organisations on every possible occasion. In 2010, the ATSE Board committed to uphold the United Nations Women’s Empowerment Principles, which seek to empower women in all walks of life.

Achieving gender equality in applied science, technology and engineering will be a long process. ATSE now has the evidence that it is possible to increase the number of women in leadership positions in the heretofore male-dominated fields of applied science, technology and engineering. Increasing visibility of both female leaders and male champions for gender equality will do much to accelerate progress.

First published in Australasian Science in their September 2014 issue, p. 47. Republished by Women in Science AUSTRALIA with permission of the author, ATSE and Australasian Science.

Leave a Reply