Advocates for gender equality say change needs to be initiated by governments, the workplace and individuals to attract more women into science and mathematics.
Change includes addressing the pay gap, improving science education in schools, establishing a flexible workforce, creating better mentoring programs and introducing employment quotas, according to Margaret Findlater-Smith and Helen Dalley-Fisher.
Ms Findlater-Smith, from the National Council of Women Australia, and Ms Dalley-Fisher, from Equality Rights Alliance, told The Newsroom society should not simply accept the lack of women in the science and mathematical spheres.
Currently in Australia, 14 per cent of natural science professors and nine per cent of mathematics professors are women. This is despite half of undergraduate degrees in these sciences being completed by women.
Their comments follow recent revelations from Sydney University mathematician Professor Nalini Joshi that she is often mistaken for a waitress at academic functions because of her gender.
“I am the first female mathematician ever to be appointed as professor at Australia’s oldest university,” Professor Joshi said. “I was the third female mathematician ever elected to the Australian Academy of Science. But when I attend functions at the academy, wearing a black suit, with a name badge, I am often mistaken for one of the serving staff. And, I am not alone.”
Professor Joshi believes Australia is “frozen in time” and that the research workforce is failing to utilise the intelligence of its female employees, a trend akin to “going back to the 1950s”.
Ms Findlater-Smith agrees, saying the ability of female researchers and academics often falls under the radar. “We don’t have as many women in the sciences but the ones who are there are doing fantastic work,” she told The Newsroom. “We don’t recognise their capacity and ability and we should give credit to those who are there.”
Ms Findlater-Smith also believes the logical minds of women makes them ideal candidates to pursue careers of the mathematic or scientific nature.
Ms Dalley-Fisher says she often hears stories of females in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) environments being overlooked. “They report not being heard in meetings, not being asked to contribute and not being included in the conversation,” she said.
There is currently a 17 per cent gender pay gap, with male salaries starting at $3000 to $4000 greater than those of their female counterparts.
The proportions of senior academics in Australian universities also have low female representation (only 17 per cent) according to the Science in Gender Equality (SAGE) initiative.
Both Ms Findlater-Smith and Ms Dalley-Fisher believe the impact of greater female contributions to the maths and sciences will be positive and far-reaching.
“By improving women’s participation you are drawing on a broader pool of talent and you won’t miss talented women,” said Ms Dalley-Fisher.
Ms Findlater-Smith says a greater representation of women will lead to better research and innovation “because women do think outside the box”.
“We are not very good at recognising ability, particularly with women,” she said. “It would be amazing to have a first woman astronaut.” – Samantha Barrie
Screen grab of Professor Nalini Joshi from the Australian Academy of Science’s YouTube channel.