Sharing a vision

We're seeking to improve outcomes for women in STEMM careers, with a strong focus on supporting research and innovation. An advocate for women in STEMM and a former CEO of the Australian Research Council, Vice-Chancellor Professor Margaret Sheil AO shares her vision and insights in a speech given at QUT's 2018 International Women's Day event.

Early career experiences

In my early career I faced all the usual systemic obstructions that women face, including the challenges of being a mother in a male-dominated workplace, and the unconscious - and not so unconscious - bias of a world that was still mostly run by and for greying white men, in my case in lab coats rather than suits.

There was little quarter given for the impact of childcare; accomplishment was calculated solely in terms of raw track record; any attempt to explain career breaks was couched in a deficit model; and decisions were made by committees on which women were outnumbered, when they were there at all.

In my case I succeeded because in the early part of my career I had what I consider to be the three essential elements if you wanted to combine a family and career. Namely, a good partner, a good boss, and most important of all a truly wonderful Mum, who I know is looking down on me from somewhere with pride.

So by the time I went to the Australian Research Council (ARC), I was well schooled in the scale and nature of the challenge. I was appointed CEO of the ARC in 2007 by Julie Bishop, who was then Minister for Education, Science and Training, as well as Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women’s Issues. With a selection committee chaired by the then Education Secretary, Lisa Paul, a confluence that was important in ensuring there was no impediment to an eminently qualified woman being offered the role.

I had been part of a number of local initiatives at Wollongong supporting women in science so the ARC was an opportunity to do more on a national level. My very first decision at the ARC was to reject the recommendation to appoint six male committee chairs and told them to come back with 3 women. That set the tone. Not long after I was advised by a senior women to leave the gender issue alone otherwise it would define my time at the ARC. She argued that, in any case, once you correct for level of appointment, it’s simply a pipeline problem that will fix itself over time. So I wondered if I didn’t address this, who would – the next bloke appointed to the role?

The research workforce

Contrary to the advice I was given the problems were not just insufficient women at the top end; that was a problem I will come back to but the really startling trend was at the early career stage where the biggest differences in success rate emerge. There is a problem with the pipeline, which is more acute in science, and even more so in engineering and IT.

But in the US where there had been more women in the system for longer, the pattern was the same. And it’s still much the same pattern ten years on, as we seen from that study by Sharon Bell.

We got to work on addressing the language and the parameters around assessing research accomplishment, so that performance was regarded relative to opportunity to actual time on the job, rather than against the atomic clock at the US Naval Observatory. We introduced the (Discovery Early Career Researcher Award) DECRA scheme to reduce the effect of male patronage, since the problem with differential success rates was worse at the start of women’s careers. At the senior end of the career spectrum, there were equally startling trends in the Laureate scheme. While the women who applied were more successful per capita than the men, they were far outnumbered by male applicants.

After a visit home by Australian Nobel Laureate Elizabeth Blackburn, we added two Laureate Fellowships for senior women, and furnished them with additional resources for mentoring and programs to advance the careers of talented women in their fields. In an early morning phone call another Science Minister, Kim Carr, made the canny suggestion to name these designated fellowships after distinguished (and deceased) Australian researchers, to prevent them being politicised or retracted. Thus the Georgina Sweet and Kathleen Fitzpatrick Laureate Fellowships were born, for outstanding women researchers in science and technology, and in the humanities and social sciences, respectively. The scheme was criticised recently by someone saying that we were asking women to do more but in fact we designed this recognising that many successful women were actively supporting women already.

We achieved great outcomes with these awards, in terms of empowering creative individuals to do new and daring things to boost women’s careers, such as Nalini Joshi using her Georgina Sweet Fellowship to get the Science in Australia Gender Equity initiative going, in collaboration with some others including Tanya Munro.

The combination of these reforms and local efforts by an increasingly active and engaged sector helped us to reach parity at a fifty-fifty success rate, and we are seeing many successes at the upper echelons of women in science and research, but the incentives in the Laureate here have not substantially shifted the numbers from 3-4 out of 15-17 each year. So we need to do more at an institutional level, especially at mid-career.

Vision for QUT

Turning to QUT, where I have taken an early and keen interest in the university’s gender equity position. In my second week, QUT was once again recognised as an Employer of Choice for Gender Equity by the federal Government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency. This is testimony to years of dedication to principles of equality at QUT, to years of leadership by the many champions of positive change at this institution. We can all be proud of that recognition, and I thank and congratulate everyone who has helped to produce that result. QUT has been on this list since 2005, something only a handful of other Australian universities have achieved.

I know that all responsible will all agree, that you will all agree, that the work has only just begun. It is gratifying to do well in the eyes of others, of course, as it is to do well relative to the sector. But there’s a trap in those plaudits, and in performing above the line: doing well can feel a lot like doing well enough, when we all know there is a lot more to be done.

We need to measure our achievements not against other universities or against the regard of others, but against our expectations of ourselves, against our conception of fairness and justice and equity, against the standard we need to reach before we can say that gender truly holds no one back from access to opportunity, recognition and success.

We compare reasonably well against the sector for women’s representation in senior staff, at a little over 40% overall. I do note, however, that we’ve come off a peak in 2016 and appear to have plateaued, something we need to turn around.

The professional cohort at senior level is strong, and has shown steady growth in the main. The academic cohort is less strong and mirrors the national pattern by level. At QUT, levels A, B and C come in around the 50% mark, dropping below 40% at D and below 36% at level E.

After all, workplace marginalisation happens to women right across the workforce; school pickup is the same time whether you’re an historian or a physicist but the differences are more acute for women in science and engineering, in part because these are areas where it is hard to leave and come back to, and in part because of the absolute numbers to begin with and the sharpness of the fall. Only one in five full professors across science and technology here is female. In some disciplines it’s as low as one in ten.

Think for a moment what that dramatic collapse represents, what the sustained absence of senior women in these disciplines must mean for role-modelling, for mentoring, for the creation of a supportive environment and a nurturing disciplinary culture, for fostering talent and knowledge-creation. I venture that this is not only a problem for women, but also for men coming through, who will be inducted into a distorted idea of a scientific workplace that is radically out of step with the world outside the lab. You can see now why I think we need to put in additional urgent effort into women in science and engineering.

Let me be clear: we do not have a particular problem in this respect at QUT. This situation is reflective of the national, and even international, picture. The issues at play seem to be the same as well, as do the approaches that will overcome them.

Science in Australia Gender Equality process

QUT has articulated these over recent times, and within the SAGE (Science in Australia Gender Equality) process, which is being sponsored by DVCR Arun Sharma, is improving institutional practices including women’s access to career-enhancing opportunities; tackling unconscious bias that might sit behind; and better accommodating career breaks and work-life balance issues.

The issues cover recruitment, promotion, pay equity, research-related opportunities, targeted support for promotion and retention; minimising loss of momentum from career breaks; the impact of being non-tenured, and so on.

I’m very pleased that QUT is part of the inaugural group in the national SAGE Athena SWAN process, which will give renewed energy and focus to the area. The gender equity policy in the university’s Manual of Policy and Procedures and the Athena SWAN principles are a perfect match – they both take a strengths-based approach and talk about the dual need to equip women to navigate the system while at the same time – and more importantly – improving the system itself by removing barriers and biases.

QUT is well on the way in terms of integrating its programs across the university, with some such as the QWIL leadership course being over 20 years old. The more recent programs focussed in the STEMM area seem well-targeted at both women and senior staff, to enable them to use their influence to improve organisational culture.

Part of the SAGE process was a comprehensive survey of STEMM staff. The responses to three open questions are particularly illustrative. Participants were asked:

  • to list three things that would assist them to achieve their career goals
  • three things that were obstacles to their career goals
  • to nominate measures that could improve equity and diversity across QUT.


The responses are striking, particularly when disaggregated for gender. In both actual barriers and potential enablers, one word stood out: time.

"Lack of time to succeed in anything. All we can do is cope, or be very, very selfish"

"Too much to do, too little time"

"Time to develop career goals vs being overwhelmed with work obligations"

Women with all sorts of role profiles talked of being time-poor, doubly so for part-time staff. Women are constrained not only by their caring responsibilities, but also by what they saw as high workloads in their teaching and service roles. Women across the board told us they needed more time to focus on career goals and career enablers.

That’s why I am pleased to see in the draft Action Plan attention to workload allocation, to career breaks, and to improving progression for part-time staff. I’m pleased to see mention of QUT’s ‘relative to opportunity’ policy being applied to all merit assessments. And I’m pleased to see a strategy to hold major meetings only within core hours (9.30am to 4.30pm). I strongly support this policy and have already enacted it for VCAC.


The second issue which stood out from the survey responses was support.

"Collaborative environment within the discipline"

"Mentoring and networking opportunities"

"Recognition of good ideas"

"Support from senior management"

Women frequently mentioned the desire for mentorship and sponsorship; the importance of support from senior leaders; the need for fair distribution of practical supports such a seed-funding; and how much they appreciated a welcoming organisational culture.

Again, the draft Action Plan works on improving the organisational culture so that it is truly inclusive and supportive, and promotes a rich variety of programs focussed on progression and retention. While senior leaders have a particular responsibility, there’s clearly a role for all staff here.

The way forward

The way forward is going to require effort across many fronts and for a considerable time. We have challenges all along the length of that leaky pipeline, from schooling to qualification to employment. In STEMM disciplines, we need to recruit more women, and improve their promotion and retention rates, if we want to eliminate the unacceptable gap between genders. And these imperatives apply not only to women of course, but to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, those living with disabilities, people born overseas (particularly in Asia), and people from a whole host of other under-represented demographics. These imperatives apply especially to women who are also members of these groups. We don’t have to wait around for the structural changes to be reformed before taking action. While we implement these programmatic approaches, we can direct steps with both recruitment and ‘growing our own,’ targeting those levels in each discipline where the losses are greatest.

We can foster change by finding women at those levels who we can see are really good but who for various reasons have not been able to progress. We can identify these women, support them, mentor them and equip them, clear the path of unfair obstacles, then give them a chance to prove themselves. And we can pull them through. We need to take focused direct action, even while we engage in concerted systemic reform.

We can foster change by harbouring a much broader conversation about the automatic and universal inclusion of women and for all other marginalised people, and by insisting on inclusion riders for speaking events, for committees, for grant application teams, for grant assessment panels, for everything we come together to do.

With so much other change going on in society, the economy and the sector, the challenge is to maintain momentum and effort over the long haul. And it is a long haul. But we have already come so far that we know we can do it, together. We will be driven by the national focus provided by SAGE, as much as by our own longstanding passion and commitment. I have always been a part of this effort, even before my early leadership roles at Wollongong University, and I will lead this effort here at QUT.

The task is not merely to make this the most gender-equitable university in the country but much more than that. It is to ensure that it would not even occur to a bright young woman coming into this place that her talent, application and hard work would ever be held back by her gender or her circumstances.

That is our promise to the next generation, it is your promise and mine, and the work we do together to bring it to fruition starts right here, right now.