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Accelerating change to achieve gender equity in STEM

Written by: Dr Isabelle Kingsley  | Senior Research Associate at Australia’s Women in STEM Ambassador  

Last week, I travelled to Auckland, New Zealand, to attend the 19th International Conference of Women Engineers and Scientists (ICWES).    

The Aotea Centre was bustling with women from diverse backgrounds who travelled worldwide to celebrate their passion for science and engineering. The line-up of speakers was nothing short of awe-inspiring. We had leading scientists and engineers presenting their ground-breaking work. Speakers shared stories of their journeys in and contributions to fields ranging from marine biology and space science to electrical engineering and geological surveying.  

Sharing our research  

Dr Isabelle Kingsley presenting at the ICWES19 conference. Isabelle is wearing a burgundy top and black jacket. She is standing at a podium and is speaking. The projection of a powerpoint presentation behind her says: Fewer women receive research grants but the reasons are more complicated than you'd think.
Dr Isabelle Kingsley presenting at ICWES19 in New Zealand.

I was thrilled to present the findings of our study of 46,912 grants awarded in Australia by the Australian Research Council and National Health and Medical Research Council over 20 years. The audience listened intently when I shared that fewer women receive research grants, but these gender differences in awarded grants primarily arise from unequal workforce participation.

Fewer women researchers mean fewer women applicants, leading to fewer women receiving grants.   

While there’s been progress toward gender parity over time, gender differences remain.    

What can be done?  

I spent the second half of my presentation discussing what needs to be done with attendees. We all agreed that the sector needs action from people of influence to break down barriers to women’s entry and, more critically, retention and progression in the research workforce.  

However, one attendee stated that she has been pushing this message for over 20 years. She voiced her disappointment with the speed of progress and asked: “What can be done to accelerate progress?”   

Higher education and research institutions have social and legal responsibilities to break down barriers and provide environments where all researchers have an equal opportunity to excel. However, these institutions will continue to move slowly if there is no external pressure.   

Research funders and governments are responsible for applying the pressure necessary to accelerate change. They should strengthen employer accountability by incentivising gender equity initiatives. Research funders and governments can require applicants and/or applicants’ institutions to provide gender equity and diversity plans or require relevant gender equity accreditation as funding eligibility criteria. Incentivising funding has documented success in increasing the number of women in mid-level leadership positions and the proportion of funding awarded to women 

Shifting: from driving to accelerating  

In one of the final sessions, Professor Suzanne Wilkinson from Massey University reflected on a little over 30 years of the ICWES conference—from the first ICWES event she attended in 1991 to today. Although there has been progress, Suzanne believes “equity, inclusion, and diversity still appear to have a way to go.”  

I left the conference with a renewed sense of purpose. The sector needs to shift the focus from ‘driving change’ to demanding bold, collaborative action from key influential entities to accelerate change to reach gender equity in STEM. We need to stop tinkering around the edges and apply real pressure to resolve the core issues and make the necessary reforms to the system.