Australia’s Chief Scientist talks gender in STEM

Dr Cathy Foley

Dr Cathy Foley is Australia’s Chief Scientist and today she gave us the lowdown about skills shortages in STEM, recovering from the pandemic plus pushing for equity in STEM careers.

Here’s some highlights from Cathy’s Helen Williams Oration at the Institute of Public Administration Australia.

STEM careers are growing almost twice as fast as other jobs, and more than a third of men in tertiary education are studying STEM qualifications; areas related to maths, or the sciences or engineering – excluding health.

But for women, the figure is only 9 per cent.

Cathy started her career at CSIRO as a materials scientist.

“I got that first position at the CSIRO, I decided to wear a dress on my first day. This was not something I had ever done in the lab when I was at university. But I soon found as the only female research scientist in the applied physics lab and I reverted quickly to wearing trousers to fit in.

“I’ve had enormous support and opportunities in my career. But it is undeniable that challenges and negotiations related to being a woman have always been a part of it. Now I am, as Australia’s Chief Scientist, the most senior science and technology adviser in the country.

“Yet here I am talking about the challenges facing women in the workplace! I might have wished gender was not an issue, but I acknowledge that it is.”

“We need more women in engineering, and also in mathematics, IT and the physical sciences.”

Accelerating change for women

“I have talked … about the problems – those patches of quicksand where careers can get really stuck. It’s easy to see those negatives given what sometimes feels like such a glacial pace of change and the discussions we are having in Australia at the moment are a reflection of that.

“And then we see the stories and pictures from Afghanistan. When women risk their lives just to speak out, or argue for an education, or even the right to leave their homes alone. It can feel like progress is just far too slow.

“But then I cast my mind back to when I was a child in the 1960s and realise how far we have come in my lifetime, at least here in Australia. When my mother had children she had to leave her job – that was the rule where she worked at the NSW Railways.

Celebrating progress

“Women are also making their mark in science. Anyone who saw the spontaneous standing ovation at Wimbledon for the scientists behind vaccine development probably shares my feeling that this was quite an emotional moment.

“It was important recognition of the work of Dame Sarah Gilbert [who co-developed the Astra Zeneca vaccine], but also of all the researchers and scientists who have played such a key role in the pandemic response. It was a real demonstration of public trust in science.

READ MORE: Advice from women in STEM

“I referred earlier to the under-representation of women studying STEM subjects in the physical sciences. But despite the low numbers, women are making their mark in some subjects that have been considered male bastions.

“In 2020, women won the Nobel Prizes for both physics and chemistry. In Australia we have women heading the Australian Research Council, and the National Health and Medical Research Council – our two main research funding bodies.

“The new CSIRO Chief Scientist is a woman. The Defence Chief Scientist is a woman. So yes, change is slow. But there is momentum. Having women in these really senior positions is normalising.

“One of the challenges female leaders face is the feeling that perhaps they shouldn’t really be there –a kind of imposter syndrome. But it is time to take imposter syndrome off the list of things to worry about.

“This is the time to stand confidently and lead by example to inspire and advance the careers of women who come behind us.”

“Science alone cannot solve the challenges.

“We need what I call “Science Plus”.

“Solutions to the challenges we face need science plus engineering, science plus design, a business case, the right regulation and social licence.”

READ MORE: Read Cathy’s Careers with STEM profile here.

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Heather Catchpole

Author: Heather Catchpole

Heather co-founded Careers with STEM publisher Refraction Media. She loves storytelling, Asian food & dogs and has reported on science stories from live volcanoes and fossil digs

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