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Catalysing Gender Equity 2020 Conference – Change is a Verb

Catalysing Gender Equity 2020 Conference

Change is a Verb


Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith

20 February 2020

Today we are meeting on the traditional Country of the Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains. I pay respect to Elders past and present and recognise their cultural heritage, beliefs and relationship with the land.

It’s been ten months since the launch of the Decadal Plan for women in STEM.

The Decadal Plan brought together a huge amount of research, knowledge and insightful lived experiences from STEM practitioners throughout Australia.

It gave us a framework of priorities and themes for action; these include:

  • challenging stereotypes
  • increasing visibility of diverse role models
  • improving workplace culture
  • working with industry
  • providing cohesive leadership to make sure goals are met
  • evaluating our actions.

It helped my team to map out our priorities for the year and to get a clear picture of where others were taking the lead.

Armed with the Decadal Plan, today we come together to catalyse action on gender equity in STEM.

To create change, we have to DO something. Change is a Verb.

It’s an action.

I’m a physicist, so I’d probably call it ‘acceleration’.

Acceleration requires a force. And we’re not talking about a one- off nudge. We need sustained force over time to get where we’re going. In physics that’s called an impulse.

[Don’t worry, there won’t be an exam at the end].

What I’m trying to say is that guiding something big, like an organisation, in the direction we want it to go in, requires careful planning and patient execution.

I know that many of you are working very hard within your organisations to catalyse change.

Whether you’re striving for more inclusive and productive workplaces, or generating greater opportunity and raising aspirations for young people, there is a lot to celebrate.

Some of you will be marking your progress at the SAGE award dinner tonight. Others will be sharing what you have achieved in the posters, workshops and sessions at this event.

This is important. It’s vital that we share our work, both our triumphs and our failures. By doing so, we learn what works and draw inspiration from each other’s progress.

It’s also important, I think, to hold ourselves to account.

And we can do this both by sharing and by evaluating the work that we do.

Evaluation was one of the main recommendations that came out of the Decadal Plan.

To evaluate our actions effectively we need to engage scientific principles. We start by defining the outcomes we desire. What does success look like, and how do we measure it.

Then, identify possible paths and barriers to success.

Planning an intervention should be done with a specific problem and a goal in mind, with measurable steps and outcomes.

These additional questions need to be posed: is the program inclusive? Are there barriers to participation, or unintended consequences and if so, how do we remove them?

When I started in this role, I was asked why Australia’s 300+ women in STEM programs have not already led to transformational change. The answer is that we don’t know, because too few of these programs are designed with a specific goal in mind and only a small number are evaluated.

To tackle this issue, my team is working on an evaluation guide for STEM inclusion programs. The intention is that it will be tested through the federal government’s Women in STEM and Entrepreneurship grant program, so that all participants include a clear evaluation framework to their projects.

What else is my team focusing on this year?

We are reaching out to young children and their parents, carers and teachers to encourage greater engagement in STEM, both at home and in kindergarten, infants and primary schools.

Throughout the summer holidays I ran a media campaign around a STEM holiday activity guide that we released for children aged 12 and under.

This gave a list of fun and practical ideas for STEM learning and play that would engage children through the long summer break, (also giving parents a break). The activities were designed to develop their cognitive, problem solving and reasoning skills as well as their confidence to try and fail with design and technology.

Last week, on the International Day of Women and Girls in Science I launched a partnership with Questacon, the National Science and Technology Centre.

Together, we will deliver free events to guide parents, carers and teachers on how to effectively engage young people in STEM. The first will be a professional development workshop for educators on ways to provide a more engaging STEM experience to students.

The other will be a live streamed event for parents, carers and their kids that will include engaging live science experiments and an astrophysics story-time. Both of these are designed to explicitly challenge stereotypes around STEM.


We’re also tackling the ‘image problem’ that hangs over science, technology, engineering and maths. The stereotype that scientific discovery is a singular pursuit, or the realm of the lone genius prevents many young people from aspiring to STEM careers.

In June, my office will be launching a national awareness campaign built around the themes of diversity, creativity and collaboration in STEM careers. This campaign will help young people (and the adults that influence them) to understand the social context of STEM jobs and help them to imagine a future for themselves in STEM.


I’m also taking a particular interest in Engineering. Australia has an engineering skills shortage – we import about half of our engineers – and women statistically have low participation, making up fewer than 10% of VET graduates and 16% of university graduates.

I’ve been working with the Engineering for Australia Taskforce, a group of university deans, representatives from industry and peak bodies to ask the question ‘Where’s the E in STEM?”.

In January we launched a report called “Barriers to participation in Engineering and the value of interventions to improve diversity”.

The key finding from the report was that Australia is lacking a modern, realistic engineering identity that meets the challenges of the future.

What that means is that young people don’t know what Engineering is and how it relates to the vital elements of our society such as a sustainable food supply, clean water, technology and infrastructure. Engineering is barely mentioned in the school curriculum, even though it is practiced in many science classes. The vast range of occupations available in engineering are under-appreciated, both by young people, and the parents and teachers who influence their career aspirations.

To change this, we’re going to need to build far stronger relationships between universities, VET providers, industry and schools. Action is desperately needed to break the wall of silence and misinformation around one of the most important professions, the E in STEM.


Speaking of schools, we’re also tackling the lack of diversity in school science curricula and resources.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been working with astrophysicist Kat Ross to tackle a worrying issue that she uncovered in the New South Wales year 11 and 12 HSC science curriculum.

Whilst working on curriculum resources, Kat noticed that students were told about 80 male scientists but only 2 female scientists.

Even in places where there was ample opportunity to mention discoveries made by women, their names were absent.

I’ll let that sink in for a moment. It’s 2020 and 16 & 17-year-olds are essentially being told in schools that women have never discovered anything in science.

A fortnight ago we met with the NSW Minister for Education and Early Childhood Learning, who was very supportive of the issue and promised to strongly advocate for change.

Last week we followed up with the NSW Education Standards Authority, who have committed to analyse the improvements that need to be made to the curriculum and discuss the proposed changes with stakeholders.

I hope to report back with good news in a year or two. My main question now, is “what else is out there, lurking in the curriculum”?

So, there is lots to do, but that’s just some of the work that my team is implementing this year to support a healthier STEM identity within young people.


What about retaining and developing the people who are already working within the sector?

As most of you will know, the Science in Australia Gender Equity, or SAGE initiative is an accreditation for institutional best practice in gender equity, based on the Athena SWAN model from the UK.

SAGE is an attempt to embed workplace inclusion into an organisation’s business-as-usual. This, I think, is a model that organisations across the sector should seek to adopt.

Last year I travelled to Europe to the Gender Summit in Amsterdam and visited organisations working on STEM gender equity in France, Austria, Germany and the UK. On this tour I visited the London headquarters of Advance HE, the organisation that oversees the Athena SWAN charter in the UK.

I had some very valuable discussions with the CEO, Alison Johns, about how Athena SWAN has evolved in the UK and how that might translate in the Australian context. Something I found particularly compelling was how a bold leadership decision taken by the UK’s Chief Medical Officer in 2011 led to a step change in university’s engagement with Athena SWAN.

Before 2011, Athena SWAN was a ‘nice-to-have’. Then, the UK government’s Department of Health stated that by 2016 – so five years’ from that point – that any academic institution that had not achieved at least the Silver award of Athena SWAN would not be shortlisted for research funding awards.

In other words, you have five years to get your house in order.

In Ireland the commitment is similar. Higher Education organisations are required to have secured at least a Bronze accreditation to be eligible to compete for research funding allocated by Science Foundation Ireland, the Irish Research Council and the Health Research Board.

By the end of 2023, Irish institutions will be required to hold a silver accreditation to be eligible for competitive research funding.

Has linking Athena SWAN to funding worked? It certainly seems so. Recent peer-reviewed research from Oxford university has shown that the implementation of this change has led to an improvement in university culture across a broad range of measures.

Is this a model to examine for Australia?

I can’t see any substantive differences between Australia and the UK and Irish systems that would suggest otherwise.

I discussed Athena SWAN in October at a meeting with New Zealand’s Minister of Science and Innovation, the NZ Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment who are very interested in adapting Athena SWAN for the NZ context. I think these are positive steps and I look forward to watching how they adapt the model for their unique circumstances and helping in any way that I can.


Last but not least, I wanted to let you know about a project we’re running with the participation of many of the largest research organisations in Australia.

It’s a national trial of anonymous review for research funding applications. We know that removing names and gender pronouns from applications works well to combat gendered bias.

NASA recently tried this using application materials for observing time on the Hubble Space Telescope.

They adopted a system where the names of reviewers and scientists were made known to each other only after the review was complete. For the first time in 18 years, proposals with female leads had a slightly higher success rate than those led by men.

We are implementing this method in Australia in a structured scientific trial, anonymising the applications for project time on telescopes, synchrotrons and supercomputers.

We hope that the trial will do two things. First, it will provide important data on the effectiveness of anonymised review and provide a strong evidence base for the STEM sector to take action on more equitable processes in future. Second, if international experience is anything to go by, it should cause an immediate reduction in gendered and cultural biases that exist in such decision making processes.


My team and I have our plates full.

We are focused on areas highlighted in the Decadal Plan where we have the expertise and resources to make a real difference.

To me when I began this journey, and perhaps it’s the same for many of you, the cultural transformation we need to achieve can seem overwhelming.

Like every great journey, though, it starts with a single step.

If you’re a senior leader, you already have the formal authority and latitude to take on this challenge and embed inclusion and diversity into everything you do.

If you don’t have a formal leadership role, you too are mighty. Individuals can achieve so much with a bit of support and backing from their peers and communities.

Kat Ross is a 25-year old astrophysics PhD student from Perth. She is successfully campaigning to highlight the lack of women in the NSW science curriculum and suggesting specific changes to fix this problem.

Corey Tutt is 26, a Kamilaroi man and research assistant at the University of Sydney. He founded the social enterprise Deadly Science. He has raised more than $50,000 on Gofundme and sent thousands of books, telescopes and other resources to Indigenous students in remote schools.

The example shown by these two young people demonstrate more than anything that, as an individual, you have the power to change your environment. Leading by example can be mighty.

For the next couple of days our job is simply to listen to one another, to reflect on what we learn. Whoever you are and whatever your role in STEM, you must decide what action you will take when leaving this place.

How you will embed the principles of the Decadal Plan into your business as usual?

A transformation in our industry is coming, but only if we make it so. Take that message with you in the coming days.

Enjoy the conference and remember, change is a verb.