By Victoria Metcalf 23/05/2016 6


There’s been some unsettling things happen in New Zealand science of late, but you may not have noticed all of them, as they relate to gender.

It’s been a bit of a weird week for New Zealand science. There’s been the fishing debacle that’s unfolded like a intricate piece of origami – many extra facets and information being revealed each day and dominating the headlines. The fisheries story appeared well timed, but entirely by coincidence, on the back of the release of  the book Silencing Science by fellow blogger Shaun Hendy. Both have brought further acute attention to the tensions at the science-policy nexus, that also spill over into frictions in terms of public engagement with science.

But beyond that major headline capturing stuff, there’s been some more subtle matters of concern. These relate to tensions with respect to gender equity for women in science, which in itself also relates to the science-policy intersection.

Are we really debunking the scientist stereotype?

It started last weekend with a listicle in The Herald called Meet NZ’s extreme scientists by Jamie Morton. It’s a good concept. Debunk the stereotype of who is a scientist by ditching the profiling of white-lab coated scientists standing in labs with glassware, and instead show off the more adventurous scientists getting out there in all sorts of interesting places and doing fascinating science.

Except the Herald piece unfortunately didn’t really debunk a major prevailing stereotype about who is a scientist. A striking feature as one scrolls down the list is that of the ten scientists featured only two are women, and these are placed at the end, as if an afterthought.

In how he responded to being called out on Twitter over this gender imbalance within the Extreme Scientists article, Jamie showed another reason why he deservedly has just won the 2016 Canon Media Awards Science and Technology Award:

Extreme scientists tweets 2 gender
Tweets in response to the Meet NZ’s Extreme Scientists article

Jamie owned the issue, explained how it happened and in doing so kept the women scientists on side. It was an impressive response. But it highlights that the unconscious biases that afflict us all, can very easily affect the visibility of women in professions like science.

Gender wasn’t the only imbalance in the article and I’m surprised others didn’t comment on its striking lack of other diversity, including ethnic and age diversity. Scroll down that list of ten scientists and you’ll not only notice the minimal presence of women, but that it’s an incredibly white and age-constrained cohort.

Knowing that worldwide, including here in New Zealand, we still face significant diversity issues within science, it behooves all of us who write about science and scientists, whether as journalists or as communicators of science within the science profession space, to check our pieces before we publish and balance for diversity wherever possible and practicable.

For some inspiring choices of women to feature at all stages of their careers, I suggest checking out the women in STEM profiles I’ve previously written about. These are being added to each week on the Curious Minds website

Addressing gender equity

Meanwhile, across the ditch this week, the University of Melbourne was making news for a women-only-need-apply initiative. In a bold move, the University is advertising three women-only senior faculty positions in the School of Mathematics and Statistics. It’s a direct action to tackle the gross under-representation of women in maths at all stages and ages and one that they regard as a necessary approach. Women don’t receive the same public profile in maths and other related science fields and there are also fewer women able to survive and thrive in this profession than men, for a multitude of reasons. See below graphs for gender representation.

gender in science
Graph of gender representation by career stage, Australia. Image source: Women in the Science Research Workforce- Identifying and Sustaining the Diversity Advantage University of Melbourne report 2015
gender in science
Graph of gender representation by career stage, Europe. Image source: SHE Figures 2015, European Commission.

This women-only job advertisement poses the question, can we do the same thing here? These are worldwide issues and New Zealand is not exempt from under-representation across science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) positions. Nicola Gaston pondered the same question in a piece in The Spinoff:

It is possible that a university advertising jobs that only women can apply for is unfair, but that it is less unfair than if they didn’t.

So are we really ready for this solution here? It’s important to note that across Australia a pilot is being conducted to adopt the Athena SWAN Charter for gender equality in a considerable number of research institutions and universities. This includes the University of Melbourne. The Athena SWAN Charter was established in the UK in 2005 to:

encourage and recognise commitment to advancing the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) employment in higher education and research.

It’s been widely adopted across the UK and is known to be highly successful. Now the Australians are trialling it, known as Science in Australia Gender Equity or SAGE.

What’s happening in New Zealand to improve equity?

It might be natural to think that New Zealand will follow Australia’s lead and adopt Athena SWAN here too. However, sadly that’s not the case. The Royal Society of New Zealand recently held a workshop on diversity:

to discuss what activities should be undertaken to improve diversity and equity in New Zealand’s research community.

One objective of the workshop was to learn about the Athena SWAN Charter and to assess whether New Zealand should adopt it.

The majority view was that New Zealand should not proceed to further explore Athena SWAN at this time.

Apparently in what is news to many of us who have been working in STEM fields* for some time:

There are good programmes in many research organisations, and in many organisations the policy settings are right,….**

I’m not sure what these programmes are, but looking at the collective experiences of many people I know in academia/research careers, whatever is in place is currently not very effective. On a more positive note, the workshop participants did recognise the need to accelerate progress to reduce inequity within and across the New Zealand research system. Given, the likelihood our figures resemble the above European graph, where there has been little shift in the last six years, this is a very necessary move. In other good news, the feasibility of a national approach here is being considered.

However, a reason the Athena SWAN Charter appears to be no longer on the table is the reluctance of institutions to pay the membership costs. These cover the administration costs for running the programme to ensure each institution is compliant. Another reason for deciding against adopting Athena SWAN, that appears in the workshop outcomes, is a sense the best approach is employing a holistic framework placing the:

Treaty of Waitangi centrally to what we do, and bring alongside that inequity and diversity issues in a holistic manner.

Yet, Athena SWAN can indeed be tailored to each country’s individual cultural needs. In an ideal world we would from the get-go establish a holistic framework to tackle all diversity issues simultaneously. Starting however, with such a complicated intersectionality approach could ultimately compromise the implementation and success of any equity system decided on.

gender in science
Image Credit: Got Credit, Flickr CC, www.gotcredit.com.

So where exactly does that leave us in New Zealand in terms of addressing equity for women in STEM? A small working group has been set up to:

identify and develop the components of a cost-effective national programme that would complement the many organisational programmes in place in a manner that accelerates the rate of improvement in measured outcomes at a national level.

Developing a national programme from scratch, and with the requirement that it is cost-effective, rather than making use of a long established and effective scheme seems a challenging proposition for a country the size of New Zealand. Such an approach may lead to reduced actions that limit forward progress, as to do it well may be far more costly than the membership fees for Athena SWAN. For example,

There is strong support for the working group to consider as a first step, development of standardised and regular reporting in an open manner by all research organisations. This, in itself, may create an incentive to increase the rate of change.

Standardised reporting is an excellent first step, with an emphasis on first step. We need however, to strive to go well beyond reporting into actively changing the status quo. At present it’s clear, perhaps surprisingly, that we are not generating the same amount of forward traction as our Australian neighbours in the gender equity space. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a women-only STEM position being advertised here.

With respect to intersections, the lack of equal representation of women in STEM in the media is also directly related to the systems we put in place within institutions to tackle gender equity. Addressing inequity in STEM and other research fields is every bit as important as exposing mis-reporting of fisheries catches. Moving to resolve inequity in STEM is one mechanism to ensure the voices of (women) scientists are not silenced. Hearing the perspectives from the trenches, of women at all career stages in the sciences, is a pivotal component of ensuring any diversity scheme will be effective.

I and many other New Zealand women in STEM will be watching the outcomes of this working group very closely. Ultimately, it’s time to ask what is the real cost of a lack of gender equity in the sciences in New Zealand, as opposed to the cost of implementing a comprehensive programme to address  it?

As an open offer, I’m incredibly willing to assist the working group in any way I can, in order to remove barriers to women in STEM. 

Featured Image Credit: Gwen Pearson, Flick CC.

*I have principally restricted my discussion to STEM fields, although I am aware the RSNZ workshop was looking at diversity across all research sectors.

**EDIT: The full sentence on the RSNZ website states “There are good programmes in many research organisations, and in many organisations the policy settings are right, but progress is still unacceptably slow.”


6 Responses to “Gender matters in science”

  • An excellent round-up, thank you Victoria.
    I also was a bit dismayed by Jamie Morton’s Herald article and its lack of balance, but good to hear that he realised his mistake.

    • Thanks Carol- he’s reacted well to this. And hopefully with the reminder above will be less likely to repeat in the future.

  • It is disappointing that the RSNZ isn’t doing more for women and other minorities, especially in the context of their own research community survey. Results here http://www.royalsociety.org.nz/media/2016/05/Research-Community-Survey-2016-presentation.pdf
    Several important points arise from this survey:
    1) Women are more likely to associate ‘exclusive’ with RSNZ while men find the RSNZ more ‘trustworthy’ p. 15
    2) Women and ECRs want more services from RSNZ p. 21-22
    3) response rate from Māori was very low p. 6
    Clearly, there is plenty of potential for improved engagement with women, ECRs and Māori.

    • Absolutely- thanks for sharing this Cate. This survey data does indeed indicate that more could be done to generate a high trust model for women and also for the RSNZ and partners to facilitate greater engagement with Māori and better relationships with ECR’s. It is timely these results have come out this week. I hope my post and these survey results are the basis for starting dialogue on these matters. Greater transparency and consultation is required, especially for those that are more vulnerable, i.e. potentially disadvantaged, within the system.

  • Fantastic to see that the Royal Society’s own survey supports the narratives we’re hearing about the need for transparency, accountability, and evaluation of the impact of interventions! And totally unsurprising that under-represented minorities in science and research have alternative views of our institutions. I’m hopeful this data can now inform the ongoing processes for the equity and diversity working group 🙂