Gender parity still falls short in Australia’s research workforce

Female scientists continue to be under-represented across academia.
Female scientist in white lab coat confronts ranks of businessmen

Credit: Donald Iain Smith/Getty

Male academic researchers in Australia outnumber their female colleagues three to one at the highest-level position of professor, finds a report on gender equality in the nation’s research workforce. The study, conducted by the Australian Research Council (ARC) in Canberra, also concludes that although the overall percentage of female researchers rose from 43% in 2015 to 44% in 2018, these researchers are under-represented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) positions.

“Total ratios mean very little, as we all know women come into science and research in droves; it’s how they progress — or don’t — through the ranks that is the problem,” says Ceridwen Fraser, a biogeographer who left Australia to work at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, where she says gender equity is taken more seriously.

Female researchers at universities across Australia were outnumbered by male colleagues in 17 of 22 disciplines, including chemistry, maths, physics and engineering. Female researchers represented the majority in education; language, communication and culture; psychology and cognitive sciences; studies in human society; and medical and health sciences.

The ARC funds approximately 8% of the government’s investment in all research except that in medicine and health. In 2019, according to an ARC spokesperson, female STEM researchers had 25% grant success rates compared with 23% for male scientists in an ARC funding scheme. Still, overall grant success rates for female scientists are lower than those of their male counterparts among other funders in the nation, including the National Health and Medical Research Council.

The ARC aims to support gender equality in research employment through, for example, targeted funding awards for early-career female researchers. The funder also has policies that facilitate gender equality, including extended funding eligibility to allow for carer responsibilities, up to 14 weeks of paid maternity leave and extensions to accommodate extra unpaid maternity leave. “There has been a lot of activity in Australia over the past few years in addressing gender equity, and it is disappointing that this has not borne fruit yet in the research workforce,” says Elizabeth New, a chemist at the University of Sydney.

Other female researchers say that the continuing inequity is unsurprising. “There’s been heaps of talk, but not much action,” says Jaclyn Pearson, a group leader studying host–pathogen interactions at the Hudson Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne. When she received two job offers, she chose the smaller institute with a female chief executive over a larger and more successful institute, because she felt that the smaller employer would be more concerned with establishing and maintaining gender parity among its employees. That, Pearson adds, has been her experience.

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