In lead up to our National Symposium: Connecting Women in STEMM next week, esteemed former Chief Scientist of Australia, Professor Ian Chubb, shares his thoughts on gender equality in the STEMM disciplines.
This year, the makers of the board-game Cluedo bumped off the venerable cook,
Mrs White, and replaced her with the plant toxicologist Dr Orchid. Women, it
seems we’ve now decided, can be scientists as well as murderers and cooks.
Whether or not this was a great leap forward in society or the sciences is
debatable. What is clear is that some companies may now see profit in presenting
themselves as champions of women in STEMM.
Does their market research suggest that parents want role models for their
daughters in fields beyond the pink ghettoes of the typical toy shop? Has
awareness finally dawned that science is a diverse, exciting and above all modern
professional path? Could it be, dare we say, normal for a young woman to
contemplate a science career?
If so, it would not be a moment too soon.
But I will leave the cultural commentary to others, and simply welcome any sign that we are making headway in what must surely be one of the most intractable problems in science: the neglect of women’s talent.
It is not a problem unique to science, and it is certainly not unique to Australia. It
seems to me that we have been talking about it for a very long time, and listing
out all the reasons why women of merit miss out on the opportunities they
deserve. In our usual fashion, we have also introduced any number of small-scale,
short-term programs, grants and tweaks at the margins.
So we see the problem on the macro scale, and tell young women all the time that
their success in science will come very hard. Then we respond on the micro scale,
stop and start the measures, and wonder five years’ later why so little has been
Of course we do the same sort thing right across the science and education
agenda: respond in small ways to systemic problems.
Still, it is particularly worrying to me that so much of our talent pool is going to
waste, when the consequences for our economy and our society are so abundantly
clear. We will never see genuine equality for women in a knowledge-based
economy whilst women are under-represented in the high-wage STEM-based
professions. We will never see the sort of innovative and creative firms we hive off
STEM-based roles for men.
To me, it is another argument in favour of a comprehensive national agenda for
science and its place in our shared Australian future.
We need to articulate how we want the country to be different – and surely,
gender equality would be high on that list.
Then we need to work backwards from the goal to arrange the pieces, including
the attitudes to science we develop in schools, and the skill-base we develop
through higher learning.
That way, we can recognise that gender equality is not just a matter for schools,
not just a matter for universities and not just a matter for the more enlightened
employers, but something we need to pursue in a coherent way across everything
Yes, we need to keep our eyes on the barriers women face, and try to understand
them in fine-grain detail. But there is no benefit in listing out problems we lack
the intestinal fortitude to solve.
It shouldn’t take a plant toxicologist with a lead pipe in the library to point it out.
About the author:
Professor Ian Chubb AC MSc DPhil (Oxford) FTSE, FACE, FRSN
Professor Ian Chubb was Chief Scientist for Australia from May 2011 to January 2016. Prior to that, Professor Chubb was Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University from January 2001 to March 2011; Vice-Chancellor of Flinders University of South Australia for six years and the Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Monash University for two years. From January 1986 to September 1990, Professor Chubb was the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wollongong and Honorary Professor of Biology. During the period 1978-1985 he was an academic in the School of Medicine of Flinders University. Before that he was at Oxford University: 1971-1977 he was a Wellcome Foundation Scholar, a Junior Research Fellow of St John’s College, and a Royal Society Research Fellow. He spent 1969-1971 as a JF & C Heymans Research Fellow at the University of Ghent, Belgium. He was Chair of the Commonwealth’s Higher Education Council from September 1990 to December 1994 and was, until mid-1994, Deputy Chair of the National Board of Employment, Education and Training (the Commonwealth’s peak advisory body on all matters related to the Employment, Education and Training portfolio).
In 1999 Professor Chubb was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) and in 2006 a Companion (AC) in the order for “service to higher education, including research and development policy in the pursuit of advancing the national interest socially, economically, culturally and environmentally, and to the facilitation of a knowledge-based global economy”. Professor Chubb was the ACT’s Australian of the Year in 2011. He has been awarded six honorary doctorates: a DSc by Flinders University in 2000; a D.Litt by Charles Darwin University and a D.Univ by the Australian National University, both in 2011; an LLD by Monash University in 2012, a D.Univ by the University of the Sunshine Coast in 2014 and an LLD by the University of Melbourne in 2015. He was elected a Fellow of the Australian College of Education in 2008 and a Fellow of the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering and Fellow of the Royal Society of New South Wales in 2014.