Australia is a scientific superpower, but research carried out in 2023 shows only 23 per cent of senior management and eight per cent of CEOs in STEM-qualified industries are women. Dr Anita Goh, Principal Research Fellow at the National Ageing Research Institute and board director of the Australian Association of Gerontology, outlines why and how things need to change.

    Q: Why is it important to invest in women in scientific research?

    AG: Scientific research inclusivity, including for women, shapes the questions we seek to answer and the innovations that result. We know Australia is a scientific superpower, and Australian clinicians and researchers are highly regarded worldwide, with strong track records of innovation and research, with lots of groundbreaking discoveries. However, the 2023 Australian STEM equity monitor shows only 23 per cent of senior management and eight per cent of CEOs in STEM-qualified industries are women. Only 15 per cent of STEM-qualified jobs are held by women. And there's still a gender pay gap of 17 per cent. This lack of diversity in science is persistent and we have evidence that there is a problem. Lack of diversity can lead to products and research that don’t adequately address the needs of the population.

    In my field, ageing and dementia research, clinical trials often lack representation of women and also of minority groups. This leads to biased results. It’s really important for scientists, science leadership and decision-making and people participating in science to be reflective of the actual population of the world. There’s so much evidence that diversity leads to improved performance and innovation, more creative and fair practices, and outcomes that benefit everyone. This is what medical science is supposed to do and what it is funded to do. There is so much potential to make a difference to the health of millions of people.

    Q: When developing policy, what does diversity of experience and people bring to discussion and decision-making in the areas in which you work?

    AG: Including diverse people and experiences brings diversity of ideas and different perspectives and experiences lead to more balanced or nuanced decision-making, as they consider the needs of a wider range of people. It reduces bias and reduces the chances of overlooking potentially crucial aspects or topics. People with different viewpoints can point out limitations in proposed policies that might be missed by a homogenous group. Creativity flourishes with diverse perspectives as well, which leads to more positive and inclusive policy solutions. It can also build trust and legitimacy when policies are developed, as diverse groups are more likely to be seen as fair and representative. This leads to greater public trust and compliance, which is really important in terms of science. We know healthcare doesn’t sit apart from things like economics and social aspects, so by fostering diverse participation, we can have more equity in our policies.

    Q: What should STEM advocates do to invest in women to accelerate their progress in these areas?

    AG: My call to action in this particular group would be that investing in women requires active measures to overcome existing barriers like unconscious bias, lack of access to resources or unequal opportunities. Addressing these challenges is crucial for achieving true gender equality and reaping the full benefits of a diverse and inclusive sector. The key word here is “active”. So get diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging into your policies and organisational strategy. Develop an organisational culture that supports diversity and puts in targets, quotas and actual initiatives at all levels of your organisation — from leadership and elsewhere.

    For example, in the workplace, organisations should consider systemic barriers like lack of childcare, financial constraints and unconscious bias and look at how position descriptions are worded. Do you provide flexible work arrangements, childcare support and resources to help women and men balance their careers and personal responsibilities? Do you have policies that ensure equal pay, opportunities for advancement and protection from discrimination? It’s really important to invest in data and research and collect and analyse the data on women’s participation in your organisation. Only by collecting data and knowing about it can you identify your key challenges and track progress. You can't really know whether you're progressing if you don’t have any data to have a benchmark.

    Q: What will bring better understanding of the current situation and the benefits that could be gained from more progress?

    AG: Depending on what the goals of the board might be, there is a lot of evidence available that diversity and inclusion improves revenue, profitability, overall performance and talent acquisition. If you are collecting the data and analysing the data, which often we already have routinely collected, it will give you key information to apply relevant strategies to lead to better performance in your organisations. Basically, we don’t know until we measure. If we know the numbers and the evidence, we better know whether we’re tracking towards what we should and making progress. It is a robust, non-biased way of knowing whether we’re doing what we say we would do, or what we should do.

    Progressing women in leadership roles benefits Australia and each organisation. Creating a more welcoming and inclusive environment for women accelerates progress and unlocks the full potential of what can be done for companies. So it is about embracing what each organisation sees as their full potential. We’re not there yet in STEMM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine]. We've had initiatives in place for some time, but it requires more ground support. People who are directing and leading in organisations need to do the grassroots actions and activities that will improve the diversity of Australia’s workforce.

    Q: As a recipient of the AICD governance scholarship for leaders of small not-for-profit organisations, what did you learn and how have you been able to apply your learnings to your various roles?

    AG: At the time of the AICD course, I was a board director and the Vice President of Science and Technology Australia (STA), a not-for-profit organisation that is Australia’s peak body in science and technology. It focuses on strengthening Australian scientific and technological capacity and supporting and representing more than 115,000 scientists and technologists. I did the course in October 2022 and learned a lot about governance risk, financial performance and strategy. I felt much more confident to fulfil my board role at STA knowing I had the grounding and theory to inform how we governed STA more effectively. I also expanded my professional network, connecting with other attendees at different stages of their journey, which opened doors to potential collaborations. Since then, I finished my term at STA and now I’m a board director of the Australian Association of Gerontology (AAG). AAG aims to improve the experience of ageing, by connecting research, policy and practice. So I’m able to continue using the skills and knowledge gained from the AICD course.

    About Anita Goh

    Dr Anita Goh is a Principal Research Fellow at the National Ageing Research Institute, an honorary principal fellow at The University of Melbourne, an honorary Clinical Neuropsychologist at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and an adjunct researcher at Edith Cowan University. As a clinician researcher and a clinical neuropsychologist, her research focuses on cognitive health, mental health and wellbeing, and quality of life in ageing, with a specialisation in neurodegenerative and psychiatric disorders. Associate Professor Goh is an Advisory Council member of the Alzheimer's Association International Society to Advance Alzheimer's Research and Treatment, Councillor of the Royal Society of Victoria, board director of the Australian Association of Gerontology, and just completed her term as board director and Vice-President of Science and Technology Australia. She is a graduate of the AICD governance scholarship for leaders of small NFP organisations.

    #CountHerIn #IWD2024

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