Transforming The Face of Science in Australia And Beyond

Marguerite Evans-Galea, Ph.D. - March 08, 2019

What does a scientist look like? This seems a simple enough question. If you ask students in high school this question, in most cases you will get a clear and simple answer: a balding white man, in a lab coat, with glasses.

This stereotype is not surprising since this is what our children often see in movies, on television and the internet, during their education, and in the leadership of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine – STEMM.

There is even a stereotype for what a scientist does, with most images on the internet depicting laboratory scientists. But we know scientists do so much more, not only in research and academia, but also in industry and government.

What Are The Issues?

The core issues facing women in the STEMM workforce worldwide have been well-studied and reported for decades, and fall broadly into four categories:

Caring responsibilities and career disruptions – in Australia, two thirds of all carers are women, with almost all (96 percent) caring for a family member.1 This impacts women both in and out of the paid workforce, and can also affect their ability to return to paid employment and the timing of that return.

Metrics – how we measure success in STEMM. With the focus primarily on publications and funding, anyone on a slower trajectory is automatically marked down due to a drop in productivity. Contributions to collaborations, teaching, clinical activities, mentoring, policy and leadership do not hold the same weight in scoring. As we diversify our workforce, we will also need to diversify how we measure and value success in science.

The hypercompetitive nature of STEMM and the reliance on track record for sustainable funding. Personal or professional setbacks have a ‘compounding’ impact on track record over time.2

Organizational culture – a recent survey of Australia’s women in STEM reported that existing practices and policies can foster a workplace culture that “directly or indirectly excluded, marginalised or disadvantaged women.” This culture manifests in unconscious bias, everyday sexism, under-valuing women’s scientific expertise, and rewarding long working hours.3 A more recent survey found almost half of the respondents had experienced sexual harassment.4

We have known these issues, witnessed these issues, and measured these issues – and for too long, we have chosen to turn a blind eye.

What Can We Do?

Leaders need to ensure their organization is at the leading edge of the wave by implementing best practices and policies. As decision-makers and influencers, we must drive a positive shift in individuals’ behaviour, evaluation of applications and promotions, and the overall culture of the organization. Leaders can take a pragmatic approach and call out harmful behaviours and actions. The best case scenario for positive change is when you have leadership championing the cause and grass-roots initiatives that can make a difference.

Practices and policies that are relatively low-cost yet make a difference include flexible work practices, family and carers rooms on-site, ready access to childcare, increasing the visibility and public profile of women leaders at the organization, a 40:40:20 policy on key boards/committees (including the organization’s governing board, strategy committee, executive team, and recruitment and promotion panels), programs aimed at accelerating promotion and career trajectory, career disruption support, stay-in-touch and return-to-work practices, and mentoring and sponsorship initiatives.

Initiatives that can have greater impact often require funds and resourcing, such as targeted fellowships for women that provide secure funding through 5 years, extended time to tenure or additional funding for career disruptions, funds to support childcare or travel with family to review panels and conferences, technical support during carers or health leave, and competitive funds to coach and mentor rising stars. These could help ensure we train and retain senior women leaders in STEMM.

To ensure these practices are making a difference, regular data collection and monitoring of progress need to be done – and it needs to be in-depth. Organizations need to look beyond who is in the faculty and management team, and ask a number of vital questions. Are women on decision-making committees? Do they have a say in the organization’s research and strategy plans? What roles do they play, and are they executing most of the non-promotable activities on the committee?

Importantly, men have a key role to play as champions of change, and there are multiple ways men can lead by example and support their colleagues.5

What’s Happening Down Under

In 2019, we are experiencing an unprecedented global push for change. In Australia, we’ve witnessed a rapid expansion in initiatives advocating and supporting women in STEMM in just the past five years. The momentum this has created is exciting, and it is supported from both the “top-down” and the “bottom-up.”

The Australian government has invested over AU$13m in initiatives for women in STEM.6 This funding has paid for national programs including a pilot of the United Kingdom’s Athena SWAN program7 by the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, and the establishment of the Male Champions of Change in STEM.8 More recently, another AU$25m has been invested in supporting Indigenous girls to pursue STEM careers.9 This has culminated in the appointment of Australia’s first Women in STEMM Ambassador, Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith, sending a clear message that science is for everyone.10

Take An Inclusive Approach

A recent study found culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) women felt their behaviour clashed with expectations in Australia’s organizational culture, and potentially limited their progression and advancement.11 CALD women reported success was still possible when they were actively supported by mentors and sponsors who accelerated their promotion in the workplace.

To ensure we develop the best ideas, and robust science and innovation, we need to include a diverse range of voices in the conversation. Australia’s productivity will be maximized if we take a respectful, intersectional approach to understand the challenges and solutions for all women in STEMM.

Smashing Stereotypes

As a student and a young investigator in the life sciences, I did not see gender equity or diversity as an issue. I was surrounded by driven people from all walks of life! But as I progressed in my career, it began to standout.

In this time, I’ve reflected on the principal investigators with whom I have worked and collaborated, the keynote speakers I have seen at conferences, and the professionals who are inarguably world-leading experts in gene and cell therapy.

And not a lot are women. While men have been valued mentors and role models for me, the dearth of senior level women in STEMM is a missed opportunity for us all.

A Call to Action

So what does a scientist look like today? In a recent meta-analysis of 20,860 pictures drawn by students age 5 to 18 over five decades, it was shown students are drawing women in science more often, but only in their younger years.12 As they grow older, students still associate science with men.

Visibility and role models matter – for International Women’s Day, take time to celebrate the women in STEMM in your organization. These research leaders are valued colleagues, educators, mentors, innovators, and influencers. Their excellence, ambition, and success should be equally recognized and rewarded.

For women in STEMM, I urge you – empower, respect and believe in yourself – there are literally thousands of colleagues and champions around the world cheering you on. Find your otters – sponsors, mentors, colleagues, and friends.13 Pay it forward – feel the fear, then do it anyway.

Take action as individuals and recognize that it is the people within our organizations who are responsible for the workplace culture and behaviours. Take bold action and implement the policies and practices to support the career progression of women in your organization and ensure their safety in the workplace. Have courageous conversations about unconscious bias, discrimination, bullying, and sexual harassment. Listen when women share their stories. Every woman has one.

That way, student drawings of scientists over the next five decades, will be inclusive and diverse – and a true reflection of the society in which we live.

Dr. Marguerite Evans-Galea is a scientist, executive and entrepreneur. She is the Executive Director of the Industry Mentoring Network in STEM with the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, co-founder and CEO of Women in STEMM Australia, and an independent consultant in cell and gene therapies.

Dr. Evans-Galea has led research programs in cell and gene therapy for inherited diseases at world-leading organizations in the United States and Australia. Her research and leadership have been internationally recognised with numerous awards.

An internationally recognised advocate for equality and equity, Dr. Evans-Galea served on the Science in Australia Gender Equity Expert Advisory Group and is currently a member of Victoria’s Ministerial Council on Women’s Equality.

Strongly committed to empowering the next generation, Dr. Evans-Galea actively mentors multiple STEMM students and professionals. She is an inductee and Ambassador for the Victorian Honour Roll of Women, and has represented Australia at Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings.

Championing STEMM research, education and innovation, Dr. Evans-Galea has served with government advisory groups, and communicates regularly on a range of STEMM-related topics via social and mainstream media.


[1] Australian Bureau of Statistics (2015) Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers.

[2] Stevens-Kalceff, M., Hagon, S., Cunningham, M. and Woo, A. (2007) Maximising Potential in Physics: Investigation of the Academic Profile of the School of Physics at the University of New South Wales.

[3] The slower track

[4] Nogrady, B. Sexual harassment rife in Australian science, suggests first workplace survey

[5] Saunders, DN. What can men do to stem the eodus of women from science

[6] Boosting innovation and science, Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, Australian Government





[11] Levelling the Playing Field

[12] Miller DI et al. The Development of Children's Gender‐Science Stereotypes: A Meta‐analysis of 5 Decades of U.S. Draw‐A‐Scientist Studies

[13] Ziwica K. Enough with the queen bee myth – let’s talk the rise of otters instead

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