Chief Scientist on three challenges for women in STEM

 “I am, as Australia’s Chief Scientist, the most senior science and technology adviser in the country. Yet here I am talking about the challenges facing women in the workplace! “

Cathy Foley delivered the Helen Williams Oration yesterday, named for the first woman to be a permanent head of a Commonwealth Government Department.

In the distributed text of her address Dr Foley focused on three challenges.

* encouraging young women into STEM (physical sciences as well as caring professions)

“One of the solutions is to improve visibility of science careers – so you can see yourself in a career that makes sense to you if you study physics or chemistry, just as you can with, say, medicine or law”

* helping women stay in their careers

Dr Foley pointed to four issues to address.  Lack of support for flexible/PT work, and for non-linear careers. “The unhelpful alignment between the timing of university careers and the age when women have children” and “the way success is measured, which reflects an out-moded system of publication numbers and the like.”

* accelerating achievement by women in their 50s and 60s, (In my experience, this is when I have seen women’s careers accelerate”).

And that, Dr Foley suggested, means addressing age discrimination and “being aware of the challenges that can arise from menopause, and considering ways to ameliorate them”.

“The last thing we want to do is make skilled researchers, scientists and engineers feel the workforce has no place for them in those final decades of their careers.”

And yet, there was optimism

Dr Foley pointed out, the heads of the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council are women, as are CSIRO’s Chief Scientist and the Defence Chief Scientist.

“So yes, change is slow. But there is momentum. Having women in these really senior positions is normalising.”