In AMSI in the news, News

Article by Nalini Joshi, The Australian

I was the first woman to be appointed as a professor in any of the mathematical sciences at the University of Sydney.

Sydney is the oldest university in Australia, founded more than a century ago, but my appointment did not happen until 2002.

I stayed in that singular position for 13 years, until last week, when a second woman was appointed as professor.

Sydney is not the only university in this position. There are still universities in Australia with no female professor appointed to any of its mathematical fields. This is a shocking contradiction with the aspirations of our modern society. But clearly the reasons are subtle and nuanced.

Most well-meaning, educated people would say this is a problem at the entry level, based on educational and employment choices made by female students after finishing school. But the data does not support this theory.

In Australia, educational and employment data in mathematics is gathered as part of a broader category called the natural and physical sciences.

In this category, more than 40 per cent of doctorates in 2011 were awarded to female candidates and the proportion of female academic scientists at entry level was just under 50 per cent in 2001, rising to just above 50 per cent in 2012. An annual survey by the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute suggests the perception of only a trickle of entries into the field is just not true.

When I point out that the change from 50 per cent at entry level to 10 per cent at the top academic level of professor must mean talented women are leaving the profession in droves, other well-meaning people shrug and relegate responsibility to external bodies such as those concerned with equal employment opportunity. But, like a strong democracy, this is a landscape shaped by individual, local actions.

Some pathways we take in an organisation were built generations ago for reasons that no one remembers but that have a present adverse impact on everyone.

My university had a parking policy that asserted that part-time employees did not have the right to park on main campus until after 3pm. Despite an increase in parking spaces on campus, this provision remained in place until a few years ago, when a part-time employee pointed out this created an extremely difficult situation for employees with family responsibilities who needed to drop off children at school before rushing in to give morning lectures.

Such unintended overtones of discouragement and micro-aggres­sion are not restricted to policies from another generation. Recruitment policies may sound good on paper but may never be implemented with actions that reflect good practice.

Organisers of conferences may opt for habitual presenters and not spend any effort looking for female speakers.

Longstanding committees may continue to hold their meetings at times that make life difficult for members with family responsibilities. In each case, change benefits everyone, whether it is increasing excellence of candidates for recruitment, a wider spectrum of fields at conferences, or deeper engagement of committee members.

But change can be uncomfortable even when the outcomes are positive for everyone.

Many highly regarded individuals deflect their discomfort by forcefully asserting superficially plausible but wrong statements conflating change with affirmative action.

But scientifically trained individuals should know that local reflection, no matter how uncomfortable, is not the same as imposing positive bias.

Well-intentioned organisations deflect their discomfort by pursuing tick-the-box exercises as an easier substitute for real change. But counting the number of female-friendly facilities on a campus is not a substitute for real change.

The low proportion of senior women is particularly acute in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. So it is not surprising that scientists are driving the need for change in Australia.

I am co-leading an initiative with Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt through the Australian Academy of Science called Science in Australia Gender Equity, which is about to launch a nationwide pilot program for change for all organisations that employ researchers in STEM disciplines. SAGE is based on the highly successful Athena SWAN program in Britain, which asks a participating organisation to collect and critically analyse data on progression, identify reasons for exclusion and under-representation of women in that organisation, develop an action plan to address these and show progress across time.

We have high hopes for the program, but change requires leadership at all levels.

It is unacceptable to be having this conversation still when the next 10 per cent of female scientists reach the senior academic level and they, too, find they are the first woman with their name on the door.

Nalini Joshi is a mathematician, co-chairwoman of the SAGE Forum and is an observer of AMSI’s board.

First published on Wednesday 8 July in The Australian

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