Friday, 27 March 2020

“Why and how to have women in the mix?"  This big question formed the focal point of this year’s IOMRC International Women’s Day celebrations, held on 10 March.

The Symposium was sponsored by CSIRO and co-hosted by OI with support from IOMRC partners AIMS, DPIRD, UWA, as well as the Women in IOMRC network and Woodside OceanWorks. The event drew a strong crowd of female researchers, professional staff, students and male allies, all eager to share and celebrate the achievements of women in ocean sciences.

The Symposium featured reflections from Heather Brayford (Deputy Director, General Sustainability and Biosecurity), a panel discussion chaired by Dr Karen Miller (AIMS) with contributions from Prof Peter Veth (UWA Oceans Institute), Dr Cathy Foley (CSIRO), Mr Tony Worby (CSIRO), and Dr Luke Twomey (WAMSI).

Dr Cathy Foley, CSIRO Chief Scientist and distinguished physicist, opened the day by sharing her own impressive career as a pioneer in superconducting materials. Over 33 years at CSIRO, Dr Foley has made numerous impactful contributions, advancing diverse fields from mineral exploration to medical diagnostics. Her story is one of exceptional accomplishment, but also of resilience in the face of difficult challenges.

“I never thought I could be a scientist until one of my teachers told me they believed I could. I had very few role models and had to figure a lot of things out for myself, like setting up childcare for the women at CSIRO site many years ago, and juggling raising a family with getting published and continuing my research,” says Dr Foley.

Dr Foley’s heartfelt keynote address called for action on several challenges still affecting gender equity in STEM today.

“The time when a STEM professional aims to secure an ongoing role is often the same time many women are looking to start a family,” explains Dr Foley. “Having a traditionally competitive CV is challenging if the metrics for excellence are based on volume. There is research that shows to get the same competency score, women need to be 2.5 times more productive. So unconscious bias, career pathways and how we define excellence work against women."

Despite facing lack of representation at higher levels and imperfect systems, Dr Foley has persevered and excelled in her career as a scientist and as a leader. So how should organisations overcome these industry-wide issues to value and promote women in the sciences, in the face of such adversity?

Dr Foley suggests that effective change should come from proactive leadership at higher levels through visible support, recognition and sponsorship.

“All leaders need to be accountable for diversity, not just HR. Being visible and vocal on this issue will encourage others to feel comfortable to speak out without fear of being disadvantaged or dismissed. As leaders, people watch our actions, but they also watch our ‘inactions’ and take their cues from us, so we must call-out gender biases when we see them.”

To celebrate the day and highlight some of the wonderful women in marine sciences, the Symposium also featured 20 ‘Lightning Talks’, three-minute presentations from 20 female staff across the IOMRC partner organisations. From seasoned senior researchers to PhD students and professional staff, the experience of working at IOMRC unites women from different walks of life. These women shared their journeys: how they found their way to science, overcame their obstacles, and their exciting plans for the future.

“I shared my story as I wanted to highlight what a positive difference IOMRC colleagues could make in a woman’s career,” says Dr Nicole Jones (UWA). “As a junior academic, I had been provided with tangible opportunities to expand my research, such as being invited to participate in research proposals. The majority of the leadership position opportunities presented to me resulted from unknown advocates putting my name forward.”

Jo Myers (CSIRO), member of the Symposium organisation committee, commented on the importance of giving women a platform to share their successes.

“It’s important to have events like these to promote the visibility of women in science and the various roles they play.  This event has brought the whole IOMRC community together to promote a more diverse and equitable workplace.”

Despite the resounding success of all the women present, gender equity remains an ongoing and important issue in ocean sciences and the broader STEM landscape. In Australia, 16% of the qualified STEM population and 27% of the STEM workforce across all sectors are female.

The event finished with a panel discussion focussing on ways that organisations and individuals could address improve equity in STEM, with a focus on the crucial role of male champions.  Dr Karen Miller (AIMS), Prof Peter Veth (UWA Oceans Institute), Dr Cathy Foley (CSIRO), MrTony Worby (CSIRO), and Dr Luke Twomey (WAMSI) discussed the efforts they make as leaders to help women thrive within their respective institutions.

The panel discussed the importance of women in leadership positions and how male leaders can take action against unconscious bias. Providing opportunities for women to get training and experience as leaders is crucial for their professional development. But as pointed out during the discussion, we should also be providing men proper leadership training to ensure that all our leaders are properly skilled, and we cannot assume all men are inherently good leaders. All in all it was a stimulating discussion and showed the resolve all institutions involved have for improving the gender equity in STEM.

Prof Peter Veth closed the busy schedule with a summary of the wide range of topics covered by the Symposium, highlighting the “Resoundingly positive and inspirational presentations” from the IOMRC community, alongside the “strong pathways for women in STEM identified.”

For any young female students and researchers who may feel the weight of these challenges pressing down, Dr Foley has some last advice.

“First, know what you want and be prepared to work for it. Second, don’t wait for the system to change... Third, build and use your networks, because influence is created through relationships… Fourth, use your power pose and stand like Wonder Woman. Take a moment to plant your feet and square your shoulders.  I want to see Wonder Women everywhere."

Media references

Tina Zhang (Oceans Institute Communications)    (+61 8) 6488 3732


International — Research — Science
Oceans Institute