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National Press Club Address

National Press Club Address


Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith


27 November 2019


I grew up in a small village in rural Essex in England about 60 kilometers north of London. The skies there were pretty dark, so at night my Dad and I would sometimes go outside and look at the stars in the garden.   

Now in 1986 when I was only six years old and knee-high to a grass hopper, Halley’s Comet came to visit. How many of you here saw Halley’s Comet? Yes, there’s hands up.  

Halley’s Comet is an ice-covered rock. Some people call it a dirty snowball, and it’s whizzing around the sun. It’s about five kilometers across and its orbit takes it close to the sun about every 76 years or so. And as it gets close to the sun it starts to heat up so the ice on its surface turns into a gas and that gas is pushed away from the sun by this huge energetic stream of particles that are whizzing out of our sun called the solar wind. It looks magnificent, this tail behind the comet. Or so I’m told.  

Because I actually never saw Halley’s Comet, the English clouds got the better of me. 

But you know what? Not seeing Halley’s Comet was actually a pivotal moment in my life and career because this was an exciting global event. For me it was a non-event, but it got me hooked on astronomy. So, by the age of 12 I was looking up at the stars as a matter of course. My parents encouraged me to join my local astronomical society and I really loved it despite being the only person under 50 in the room. 

Let me paint a picture for you – imagine a 12-year-old girl, that was me, and a bunch of retired engineers in grey cardigans. That was pretty much my astronomical society. But who says you can’t be what you can’t see? Because these guys were fantastic for me, they were so, so friendly. They lent me books and telescopes, they took me to the London planetarium, they were keen to help me, they egged me on to take my astronomy exams. These men were important role models to me.  

My parents, too, they gave me a tremendous gift by cultivating my interest in astronomy. I remember my Dad standing next to me in freezing cold farmer’s fields while I eagerly snapped pictures of the moon and the craters. My Mum, after very long days at work, driving me to observatories in the middle of the night. Their support made the real difference to me and it meant the world to me. 

So, it makes me think really as adults, the support and encouragement that we can give to young people is the most important thing – the most precious commodity that we can give to our children. And to help a young person to cultivate their sense of wonder and curiosity about the world is an incredible gift that we can give to them.  

But sadly this isn’t always translating. The numbers of young people studying science, technology, engineering and maths, the STEM subjects, is actually stagnating and declining in some cases.  

We’ve got some serious work to do if we want to enable more STEM love stories like mine. And there’s another problem because women make up only 17 per cent of the STEM qualified population in Australia.  

And at the same time, STEM skills are becoming more vital in the jobs market. This mismatch is storing up potentially catastrophic future for millions of young Australians who risk missing out on important employment opportunities and on their economic independence.  

Now, diversifying our workforce in STEM is important for several reasons. And I’ll give the example of technological solutions designed in a monoculture that are rarely fit-forpurpose. That example is artificial intelligence or AI.  

Now, there’s a growing body of evidence that many AI systems actually magnify the gender and racial biases that we have in our society. When used in facial recognition or self-driving cars or police databases, AI can actually spell the difference between life and death.  

The vast majority of people around the world designing AI systems, especially for commercial applications, are white men and it really, really shows. For example, crime predicting software used across the US has shown bias against black men, making them targets of law enforcement operations and giving them longer jail terms. Facial recognition technologies increasingly used in policing and in war zones work 99 per cent of the time for white men and 35 per cent of the time for black women. Now, that is storing up some real problems. And there is loss of employment opportunities potentially too, with some advertising algorithms showing high income job adverts preferentially to men.  

There’s also an economic imperative for greater diversity in STEM. Advances in physical and mathematical sciences contribute $145 billion to our economy and that’s about 11 per cent of our GDP. And upskilling about one per cent of our workforce into STEM roles would add $57 billion to GDP over the next 20 years.  

Imagine the difference that gender equity could make to the economy – upskilling more women into these occupations. But despite more than 300 targeted women in STEM programs across the country including robotics, drone, coding camps and more, we’re barely moving forward in the number of girls taking up further study in IT and engineering and the physical sciences.  

In 2006, more than ten years ago, the STEM-qualified population of women was 15 per cent and today it’s only 17 per cent. It’s barely inching forward. But fortunately, the Australian Government is coordinating a suite of actions that will help to tackle these issues and hopefully shift the dial on gender equity in STEM.   

Last year, the Federal Government commissioned the Women in STEM Decadal Plan, a ten-year plan developed by the Australian Academy of Science in partnership with the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering and also many people in the community, some of whom will be in the room today. The Decadal Plan sets the direction for the STEM sector to take action on gender equity. It’s a job for all of us.  

The Federal Government in response also released the Advancing Women in STEM Strategy which sets out the Government’s commitment to action on gender equity and it outlines the Government’s leadership role and support in three key areas. And those are enabling STEM potential through education, supporting women in STEM careers, and importantly, making women in STEM more visible.  

Then there’s my work as the Australian Government’s Women in STEM Ambassador.  

My role is to work across all disciplines of STEM with Government, with the research sector, with education, and with industry to drive gender equity. We want to find out what works and do more of it to accelerate the pace of change. And to bring these changes to all Australians, whether in remote, regional areas or the big metropolitan cities. I have a great team and we’re focusing on two important areas.  

The first is education, to highlight pathways to employment and reduce gender bias both in the home and in the classroom. And the second area is to break down structural and systemic barriers to women’s retention and their career advancement in STEMand to transform workplaces for the better.  

But I’ll start at the beginning with education. The kids of this generation find themselves in an increasingly STEM-driven jobs market. They’ll need to be ready to find solutions to global challenges, we have climate change, we have automation, ethical development of AI as I mentioned earlier, and providing clean water and food for our growing populations. Now, these solutions can only be created by teams with a diverse range of skills combining expertise in technology, in computing, but also creativity and collaboration.  

So how can we get our kids ready for this future? Well, the good news is we can all contribute through our interactions with younger members of the family. Now we all know that maths and counting are crucial skills with many jobs requiring a good level of numerical ability. This opens up a vast range of job opportunities in the retail, scientific, technological, medical, business, IT, and teaching professions. But to avoid excluding girls from these occupations it is vital that we start talking to them about numbers and counting at the earliest possible opportunity. 

Why girls in particular? Well, there is a psychological condition called maths anxiety and it’s actually highly contagious.  

Parents and teachers can easily transmit their dislike or lack of confidence in mathematics and it tends to affect girls more acutely than it does boys. Maths anxiety is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It actually leads to a lack of confidence in maths which can cause poorer outcomes in standardised tests. Luckily, we can help to alleviate maths anxiety by approaching numbers with a sense of open-mindedness and positivity. And by talking about numbers with girls as often as we do with boys.  

But surely we’re already doing this, aren’t we? Aren’t we? Well, sadly, no we’re not. Researchers in the US found parents of two years olds talk about numbers or counting, for example how many flowers can you see? three times more often with boys than they do with girls. And this is just parents having general conversations with their children. When we’re aware of these biases that we hold, we can ensure that we don’t perpetuate them.  

What we read to children also has an impact. When the market research company Neilson looked to the 100 most popular children’s books in 2017, they found most to be dominated by male characters. Male characters were twice as likely to have speaking roles than female characters and they had far more lines when they did speak. So, it is no coincidence that the cover illustration of my new children’s book, Under The Stars: Astrophysics for Bedtime shows a girl and her wombat looking up at the stars. 

We can choose educational books with women in leading roles and it’s a great way to support your children’s educational needs and not just for girls, but also for boys. If you’re thinking about gifts over the summer holidays, you might consider some STEM-related books that will help your kids flourish. 

Careers matter too. There are some brilliant resources to help you discuss careers with STEM with children. A great resource coming out of the Government is the Girls in STEM Toolkit and it’s a fun and really engaging website, and I’ve heard some great feedback. This website is funded by the Federal Government. It has resources, activities, even quizzes for girls about careers and its aim is to empower girls to see a future for themselves in STEM. You can find it by typing Girls in STEM Toolkit into any search engine 

Two other things I recommend are the Careers with STEM magazines and the STEM Careers Guide which you can also find online. So get going with those with your families. 

And, of course, it’s not just the home environment that influences your children, it’s schools too.   

Teachers can help by delivering STEM content in a way that is engaging to all children. Using modern technologies makes STEM relevant to students’ lives and helps them acquire better learning, problem-solving and thinking skills. And collaborative approaches rather than individual ones are more likely to engage girls in STEM, especially in STEM classrooms.  

Mixed methods of assessment also helpExams, group work and practical skills that help to better determine the student’s overall grasp of STEM. Many teachers are already implementing these important methods, but greater adoption of integrated STEM teaching must always be the goal.   

So as educators, we can do more to remove biases from STEM classrooms by gaining awareness of our own beliefs and our attitudes about girls’ engagement and aptitude with STEM. Unfortunately, examples of classroom bias are not hard to find.  

Educational researchers in the US reviewed hours and hours of footage from science classes and they observed carefully the interactions between students and teachers in those classrooms. And the results were startling.  

Seventy per cent of the teachers’ time was spent focused on the boys. Boys were asked significantly more questions and given more feedback on their work. When girls were called upon, they received less waiting time for answers. Boys were more likely to shout out and were allowed to speak over girls. And boys were more likely to be called to the front to do science demonstrations.  

Girls, on the other hand, and some people in the room might be familiar with this, they were more likely to be praised for the appearance of their work and how neat it was and then shoe-horned into roles that may be termed as administrative in the classroom.  

So treating people equitably in STEM education settings is vital. To enable young people to achieve and receive the education they deserve, we should incorporate case studies like this into teacher training and encourage regular classroom audits to eliminate such biases.  

Another strategy that can make a big difference is connecting students with diverse role models in classrooms.   

When I was growing up, I didn’t know any real-life scientists or engineers, but through my local astronomical society, I came into contact with professional astronomers who generously gave their time and expertise and that put me on a path that I could barely have believed back then when I was 14 years old. And since then, I’ve had an amazingly fulfilling career so far.  

I’ve peered inside the birthplaces of stars using giant radio telescopes on four continents. I’ve mapped out the structure of the gas in the Milky Way using a giant 305 metre radio telescope in the Puerto Rican jungle. I’ve weighed a super massive black hole using the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder radio telescope in outback WA. And thanks to the guidance of my role models, my life has been enriched by the possibilities that a STEM career can bring.  

To try and give back, I like to try and be a role model for young people too. A few years ago, I set up a partnership with my local public school through the STEM Professionals in Schools program. This program gives students and teachers across the country access to local STEM role models, it helps to break down preconceptions about who belongs in STEM, and it’s trying to boost students’ sense of belonging in STEM too.  

I must say, I love seeing the children light up as we explore the universe together or learn physics using food colouring and messy play or design a mission to Mars. It’s incredible to watch children’s imaginations as their mind opens and their affinity for STEM blossoms.  

I highly recommend getting STEM role models into your local schools and if you can’t find a match through the STEM Professionals in Schools program, another great resource is the STEM Women database which is a great avenue to try. It’s a list of more than 2000 women in STEM across Australia who are open to speaking opportunities. You can find it at, and if you’re lucky you might find a fantastic role model who is willing to talk at your local school about what they do.  

So, we’re doing all this work and it’s great to encourage girls into STEM careers. But here’s a question for us – are we making it a place that they want to stay?  

Well sadly, the data say no. Women are actually leaving STEM careers at much higher rates than men.  

I don’t think it’s too much to ask for workplaces to function well, to treat people with respect and to actively manage employees’ physical and mental health. Our jobs should be flexible enough to accommodate our other responsibilities in life, like family commitments and social activities that boost our wellbeing.  

We all want to work in an environment that is free from discrimination and bias. But women still face significant discrimination and bias at work.   

According to a recent survey by Male Champions of Change, two-thirds of women have had their voices devalued at work and around half see a lack of diversity in senior leadership as a barrier to their career progression.  

A lack of support for men’s parental leave also has negative consequences. Currently, 53 per cent of fathers feel their workplaces are not supportive of them taking parental leave, 27 per cent of fathers have experienced discrimination at work related to their parental leave ranging from negative attitudes to threats of dismissal – completely unacceptable.  

And at the same time, more men than ever want to take flexible work in order to care for children. And it’s important to realise this, until men and women are equal at home and are sharing the unpaid work, equality in the workplace will never be achieved.  

And it gets worse – in a recent survey by Science and Technology Australia, half of Australian women and one-in-ten Australian men in STEM have experienced sexual harassment. Seventy per cent of respondents chose not to report this harassment due to fear of reprisals and the lack of confidence in institutional policies.  

Now, to me, these are not just statistics. Far too often I hear deeply personal stories from women in the field about the harassment that they have faced.  

Women who love their work but are forced out due to powerful men who act with impunity and face minimal or no consequences.  

Perpetrators who continue in senior roles whilst their students and colleagues live in fear or in ignorance.  

Organisations that scramble to protect their own reputations whilst another woman with talent, skill and passion is pushed away.   

So I welcome the fact that the Australian Human Rights Commission is holding a national inquiry into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. I’ll be looking forward with keen interest to hearing its recommendations and to working with leaders across the sector to try to implement these.  

When we look at this tangled mess of barriers to women’s progression, it becomes abundantly clear why so many women leave in the middle of their STEM careers or fail to reach senior positions.  

Solutions are simple to identify, we can all talk about it, but it’s not as easy to implement. These solutions include removing discrimination and bias from workplace practices, enabling equal carers’ leave and encouraging men to take it up, enforcing proper workplace behaviour, identifying targets for women’s career progression, and taking steps to eliminate pay gaps.  

To be successful, these actions must be deliberate, strategic and system-wide.   

For change to really take root, senior leaders and managers must commit to specific, tailored and measurable actions to remove structural barriers in the workplace. If you’re not already tackling these issues in an organised and strategic way, the question must be – why not? 

To give you some ideas and inspiration for actions you can take in your workplace, I want to mention three case studies. The first is a project my team has just launched which will address the effects of unconscious bias on career progression. We know that removing names and gender pronouns from applications works pretty well for combatting gender bias.  

NASA recently trialled a process of anonymising application materials for observing time on the Hubble Space telescope. They adopted a system where the names of the reviewers and the scientists were made known to each other only after their review had taken place. It was an anonymous review process. What happened? Well, unsurprisingly for the first time in 18 years, proposals with female leads did marginally better than those led by men.  

My office is keen to adopt this methodology in Australia and several Australian research organisations and funding bodies have agreed to take part in a national trial. This 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 the future.  

The second success story I want to tell you about is a targeted intervention that happened this year which was led by the Federal Department of Industry, Innovation and Science. It was about the nomination and assessment process for the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science.  

The Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science are Australia’s most prestigious science prizes, recognising wonderful innovation, research and science teaching, and they’re prestigious not just because the awards total $750,000, but they get a lot of publicity.  

In 2018, a lot of people including myself, expressed concern that only one of the seven prizes was awarded to a woman. This followed several years of consistently low representation amongst women in the prize recipient pool. The Department decided to develop a plan to do something about it, and this was based on evidence and best-practice.  

Through the use of a strategic communications plan, they encouraged nominations from diverse groups including women, Indigenous and LGBTQI+ communities using social media campaigns. They also reached out directly to STEM leaders encouraging them to nominate outstanding people in their fields.  

They removed language such as distinguished or exemplary, that can create barriers to participation because women are less likely to identify with these terms. Selection committee members were shown materials about unconscious bias before the short list meetings. And by taking these deliberate and strategic measures, nominations of women increased from 32 per cent in 2018 to 42 per cent in 2019.  

The outcomes were very different too. We saw the highest number of women recognised in the prize’s history with five of the seven prizes awarded to women. Now, that’s not bad, is it, for a straightforward set of strategic actions? 

Finally, in what works, I wanted to talk about SAGE – Science in Australia Gender Equity. This is accreditation for institutional best practice, and is supported by the Australian Government.   

Through this program, currently 44 universities and research organisations have been guided through a journey of self-reflection, change, and evaluation to improve gender equity and inclusion in their workplaces. SAGE participants have put in place fairer parental leave provisions, support for allied programs for LGBTQI+ people, Indigenous traineeships, parents’ rooms at work, and many more initiatives designed to make workplaces more people-friendly.  

Now, what SAGE is, it’s an attempt to embed workplace inclusion into an organisation’s business-as-usual. And this, I think, is a model that organisations across the sector would do well to adopt.  

To be sustainable, though, we must be cautious that the work must be led always from the top, with the burden of driving change on the organisation not on the marginalised individuals themselves. So here is the bad news – according to the World Economic Forum, the gender pay gap will take more than 200 years to close at our current rate of progress. That is just not funny.  

My team and I are committed to taking action that will accelerate this pace of change and to enable all Australians to thrive in the workplaces of the future. We’re planning a national awareness raising initiative that will communicate the social and environmental good that can be achieved through STEM careers, leading to greater engagement in STEM education and showing all Australians that STEM is much more than just scientific research.   

We’re working on how to allocate resources more fairly in the higher education and research sector by bypassing unconscious bias, with facilitating diverse STEM role models in schools and in the media. But we need your help.  

Parents and families can help break the cycle of damaging stereotypes that prevent girls from achieving their full potential. Don’t ask girls: what colour are the flowers? Ask them: how many can you see? Give them science books with female lead characters and talk to them about the natural world.  

Teachers can help too, by adopting student-centred STEM learning, talking about STEM careers with their students, and filling their classrooms with diverse and interesting STEM role models. 

And leaders in business, institutions and government – we must research, plan and commit to actions that break down systemic barriers to women’s progression in STEM careers. We must hold ourselves and our teams accountable for making meaningful and permanent changes to the systems and structures that are holding too many great people back. And I’ll say it again – if you’re not already doing this in a deliberate and strategic way, the question must be – why not?  

We all want to live in a world where our achievements are defined by our skills and attributes and not by our gender. Where a child’s vocation is a result of their interest and abilities, not the expectations of society. Where a woman who might one day find a cure for cancer can follow her dreams without impediment – never to be bullied, harassed or marginalised from her chosen path.  

But this change won’t happen on its own, and it won’t even happen in our lifetimes if we don’t accelerate the pace of change.  

Let’s set our alarm clocks for 28 July 2061, the night that Halley’s Comet next comes to visit the sun. And on that night, we’ll look at the stars, and maybe I’ll talk to my great-grandniece and reminisce about my life and my work in astronomy and astrophysics and maybe in gender equity, and hopefully she’ll look at me with a puzzled expression and ask: why did we ever need a Women in STEM Ambassador?  

I look forward to working with you all to make that vision a reality.