Senior women in STEM have appealed for gender equality on conference programs and an end to all-male panels, as anger grows after an Australian neuroscientist was dropped from a Sydney speaking event for being pregnant.

Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre, Dr Muireann Irish, was due to speak about her dementia research and experience of working in STEM at a women’s lunch later this year, but organisers removed her from the bill in January when they discovered she would be more than eight months pregnant at the time.

For Dr Marguerite Evans-Galea, a global leader in the field of gene therapies at the Murdoch Children's Research Institute, and co-founder and CEO of Women in STEMM (which adds medicine to the list), it’s “sad” that this can happen in this day and age.

“Why aren't we propelling these women forward? We really should be doing that as a whole sector,” she said.

Evans-Galea’s postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Utah was brought an abrupt end by her first pregnancy in 2001 when she told her boss the news only for him to reply that she would have finish up. He apologised the next day but she left regardless.

That 17 years later a pregnancy could lead to a scientist being denied a spot at a podium is “disappointing”.

“You'd think that as an inclusive sector we would be keen to have pregnant women, all sorts of women, involved in all sorts of panels,” Evans-Galea said.

Irish’s story has raised the issue of female representation on the bills of conferences, roundtables and expert panels, and the obstacles they face.

Whether they are pregnant or not, the lack of diversity at events is a problem, with women mainly overlooked because – consciously or unconsciously – it’s jobs for the boys.

“The primary reason is they don’t get asked. This is often because the organising committee is often male-dominated and when considering candidates, people draw on their immediate networks. This is a natural thing to do and is often unconscious. It is because there are more men who have profile and are ‘visible’ within the sector, so you see them more often – in media, at conferences, in meetings – and think of them more readily,” Evans-Galea said.

No longer seen as a feminist issue or a human resources problem, in the #metoo and #TimesUp era following on from the drastic fall from grace of Hollywood mega-weight producer Harvey Weinstein, there is a growing understanding that gender inequality is harmful to women and to STEM. So much so that the prestigious The Lancet journal said in a February editorial that 2018 will be a year of reckoning, with gender equity in science “both a moral and necessary imperative”. 

In Australia, 15 per cent of panellists at conferences, taskforces and events are women. Male-heavy conference line-ups are a visible reflection of workplace inequality, according to Emma Hossack, President of the Medical Software Industry Association and CEO of electronic medical record company Extensia.

“Male domination at conferences shouldn’t happen, all things being equal, but, hey, we all know they are not equal. Yet,” she said.

Organisers have to seek out women speakers and the women need to take hold of the opportunities, Hossack said, especially if mainly male programs and the most misogynistic manifestation – all-male panels – are to be eradicated.

“The conference line ups and ‘manels’, as all male panels have come to be known, are a visible reflection of the imbalance and a reminder to all of us that not only do we have to tap the shoulders of other women and conference organisers, but also be willing to take up offers to present when they come, even when sticking pins in your eyes sounds preferable to public speaking!” she said.

Hossack said healthcare attracts women and as such health IT contains many very senior women – in the last two years five of the eight directors of the MSIA have been female, while industry trailblazers include Health Informatics Society Australia CEO Dr Louise Schaper, Telstra Health managing director Mary Foley, EpiSoft CEO Jenny O’Neill and Best Practice co-founder Lorraine Pyefinch.

“Consequently, in this industry as opposed to others where the representation is not as high, yes, we should expect gender parity on panels,” Hossack said.

Statistics show there is a real and insidious problem with gender diversity in STEM. According to research published in 2018 by the Pew Research Centre, a US fact tank, women in STEM are more likely to experience discrimination (50 per cent) than those in other industries (41 per cent).

Within STEM, women with postgraduate qualifications (62 per cent) or those working in computing jobs (74 per cent) were subjected to the highest proportion of gender discrimination. The situation was more pronounced for those women working in mostly male workplaces, with 78 per cent claiming they had experienced gender discrimination in the workplace, and 48 per cent said sexual harassment was a problem in their workplace.

The most common forms of discrimination experienced by women in STEM included earning less than a man doing the same job (29 per cent) and being treated as incompetent (29 per cent).

As the researchers say of the barriers encountered by women working in STEM jobs, “the workplace is a different, sometimes more hostile environment than the one their male co-workers experience.”

It’s through this prism that conference line-ups are formulated, including the persistent all-male panel, for which, Evans-Galea said, there are “no excuses at all”.

“How can they possibly be having the best discussion of a diverse range of ideas, with such a lack of diversity in the panel? This is a clear sign of not keeping up with the times – and it’s not a good look. People will steer clear of such meetings by active choice due to the lack of innovative thinking and careful consideration in planning.”

The Panel Pledge – an initiative by Male Champions of Change, Chief Executive Women and Women’s Leadership Australia – is a commitment to actively encourage women’s participation on panels by insisting women are included, only sponsoring forums that take gender into account, and even withdrawing from events that are overloaded with male voices.

Sue MacLeman, the CEO of MTPConnect, a not-for-profit that aims to accelerate the growth of the medical technologies, biotechnologies and pharmaceuticals sector, said the pledge is helping to the generate change.

“It is certainly a common occurrence to see an all-male panel, though I think a lot of work is being done in the sector to make this change including many in the MTP sector taking the Panel Pledge. We have some terrific women in our sector and sometimes it is just taking the time to reflect when you are building out these panels to make them more diverse.”

MacLeman said the sector is moving in the right direction towards smashing the glass ceiling, although more focus and support could help to build diversity on boards and in senior management teams.

With a more inclusive approach to leadership, she said, would come even greater levels of innovation, placing Australia in the strongest position to compete globally. Ensuring women are treading the conference boards and speaking about their achievements is vital in establishing their leadership cred.

“More and more we are seeing inspiring young leaders taking the stage, many of these women. Women sometimes have a tendency to defer opportunities to others they view as having more experience or specialised knowledge, so I think we need to showcase these women and make sure their names are well known.”

MacLeman said to raise women’s profiles, men need to continue to champion change and call out discrimination in any form when they see it.

According to Hossack, at the 2016 Australian Computer Society’s annual conference, former High Court judge, human rights advocate and patron of UNSW’s Kirby Institute Michael Kirby challenged the lack of diversity industry-wide in his keynote address.

“He looked out at the audience and said why are you all middle-aged Anglo-Saxon men? Where is the diversity?” Hossack said.

“Well, after that I noticed a strong advertising campaign in all the airports for ACS – it had a little girl dressed as Superman with inspiring words about achieving your ambitions. That is a start and there are other campaigns like this, such as Tech Girls and Vic ICT for Women.”

Other programs for children include Code Like A Girl, Girl Geek Academy and Robogals.

“These will all help to foster a culture where women are not viewed as the outliers.”

For Evans-Galea, who is also the Executive Director of the Industry Mentoring Network in STEM (IMNIS) at the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE), the strength of the sisterhood can also help to elevate women’s voices, eliminate imposter syndrome and banish group think.

“We urge all women to celebrate their own successes right alongside celebrating the success of others. This doesn’t take away from anyone. It amplifies the amazing work we all do and increases visibility of all women in STEMM,” she said.

“Imposter syndrome can be quickly overcome when women feel strongly supported and empowered to step on stage.

“This is the power of women’s networks. We back each other to do our best. We aren’t afraid to ask for help and give it when needed. We challenge group think and call things out.”

Organisers of events can discover high-achieving women in various fields through the Victorian Women’s Trust’s Here She Is portal, which contains a talent pool of speakers, mentors and leaders. Women for Media, which is curated by the Women’s Leadership Institute of Australia, provides journalists with a database of more than 200 female leaders in business, finance, government, academia and the not‐for‐profit sector to increase their visibility and ideally bring about greater diversity of thought in the public forum.



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