Ways to Enhance Gender Equity and Diversity in STEMM

Informed and Practical Ways to Enhance Gender Equity and Diversity in Science
This is Part 2 on my participation in Kiwi Foo, an invitation-only “unconference” in Auckland, New Zealand, that brings together people from broad fields to work on social change (read about the rest of Kiwi Foo in Part 1). I spoke about Informed and Practical Ways to Enhance Gender Equity and Diversity in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM).

Ruby Payne-Scott. Photo via Peter Gavin Hall, Wikipedia
Ruby Payne-Scott. Photo via Peter Gavin Hall, Wikipedia, CC 3.0

I started my talk at Kiwi Foo by telling the story of Ruby Payne-Scott, a pioneer in radio astronomy whose work led to major technological innovation and scientific knowledge. She supported top secret science on radar detection in the 1940s during the war, and she was a women’s rights activist. During the 1930s and 1940s, she worked for Australia’s premier government research agency, CSIRO, at a time where women were not allowed to be married and working in the public service. So she secretly married in 1944 and subsequently lost (but fought hard to keep) her permanent position at CSIRO. She was finally forced to resign in 1951, a few months before the birth of her son, Peter, as her pregnancy was no longer able to be hidden. Her career in science was effectively ended because her family status was deemed unlawful for the public service.

Ruby Payne-Scott, third from the right, at the 1952 International Union of Radio Science conference, University of Sydney
Ruby Payne-Scott, 5th from the right, at the 1952 International Union of Radio Science conference, University of Sydney. Photo: Wikipedia, CC 3.0

Women scientists and allies who care about gender equity in STEMM tell Dr Payne-Scott’s story often, though it is a shamefully unknown story by broader Australia. My point in beginning my talk with this lamentable tale is that Payne-Scott’s historic impact lives on for the wrong reasons. In Australia, the shameful employment discrimination she endured overshadows her scientific achievements in many ways. More sadly, while women in the present day are no longer discriminated in the same overt way, other structural inequalities make it difficult for women to remain in science, especially after they have children. So Payne-Scott’s legacy remains perennially relevant, 70 years later.

I talked about the culture in science, which consistently ensures that women are squeezed out of science careers, by being looked over at every stage, and not being given the opportunity to reach senior levels. Less than one fifth of senior academics in Australian STEMM are women. I discussed how this pattern is entrenched in our socialisation. We see this clearly in the Draw a Scientist Test, which has shown consistently for five decades that children move from initially seeing scientists as non-gendered people in preschool, to exclusively White men in lab coats.

Draw a Scientist Test, image from David Wade Chambers stdy 1983. Source: Wikipedia, CC 3.0
Draw a Scientist Test, image from David Wade Chambers stdy 1983. Source: Wikipedia, CC 3.0

From the age of five, when children begin primary school, they begin to absorb gender stereotypes from their parents, their teachers, the media and other social institutions. Without intervention, these stereotypes dig deep into our way of thinking, tempting us to reproduce gender stereotypes as we grow up, in our undergraduate and postgraduate classes; or in our jobs or other areas of life. We know from research, however, that this is a social phenomenon, because intervention programs where teachers are taught to control their unconscious biases, can reverse these trends.

Stereotype threat. Image: Stem Women
Stereotype threat. Image: Stem Women

The phenomena of stereotype threat shows that girls and boys perform at comparable rates on math and science tests, and in many cases girls actually outperform boys. Yet when girls are reminded about their gender before a test, they perform poorly. Scientists such as Professor Chad Forbes are able to show that this occurs due to a physiological response: elevated anxiety impairs brain function that leads to poor test scores. The effect is exacerbated for students from minority racial backgrounds. Having received overwhelming signals that society does not expect White girls and minority groups to succeed in STEMM, has a profound impact on their outcomes.

Even when young White women and minority groups defy the effects of stereotype threat, they continue to face other structural barriers.

Motherhood penalty
Motherhood penalty

Research shows that when two sets of fake CVs have been sent out with identical qualifications, with the only difference being the applicant’s male or female name, academics still favour hiring the male applicant. Additionally, academics will offer an average of $4,000 more to male applicants, and other perks such as special mentoring to attract male candidates, but they do not offer such attractive remuneration for women, even though they are present the same educational and work achievements. The so-called “motherhood penalty” is more punitive, with $13,000 bonus starting wage offered to fathers relative to mothers.

Other research shows that in high achieving faculties, male postdocs are 90% more likely to have a male adviser who is a Nobel Prize laureate. Internationally, data from the United Nations show that only one in five nations have gender parity in science. Nevertheless, this variation tells us that culture does play a role in STEMM outcomes.

I discussed that gender equity and diversity requires active management and that no one approach will fix the problem. It’s not just a matter of trying to get more women “into the pipeline” of STEMM, but rather looking at the ways in which the whole system needs a reboot. I discussed three levels where action can be taken: individual, group and structural.


Women’s leadership is vital to businesses committed to social good & corporate responsibility
Women’s leadership is vital. Source: Me on Social Science Insights

Research shows that men overemphasise their achievements and women do the opposite; however, even when women do speak with confidence about their abilities, they are more likely to be punished for being “aggressive” – something that does not happen to men. In some contexts, such as in business, women who are assertive are more likely to get ahead – however, they need to “monitor” this “aggression” and check themselves. Women who are assertive without being “chameleons” (adapting the “directness” of their self-confidence) are seen in a negative light.

Research shows that managers undervalue women’s leadership and collaborative approach, seeing it as a weakness instead of what it is: an organisational asset.

Why are we forcing women to change in order to succeed in STEMM? Programs that focus on eroding feminine styles of leadership require a taxing balancing act (“be more masculine but not too masculine”). This may help a few women climb upwards, but with mixed results. Moreover, this maintains the status quo. Programs that do not question dominant styles of leadership predicated on being White, heterosexual, able-bodied and cisgender (also known as “hegemonic masculinity”) accept that emulating established models of management are the best ways to get ahead. This is not the case.


I talked about how there are many good programs in STEMM, but they are limited because they address interpersonal dynamics (“group”) but not structural factors. Unconscious bias training is all the rage at the moment, especially in Australian STEMM. This training is important because it provides managers the mental tools to think critically about their own biases. Equity and diversity programs should make this type of training standard for anyone who manages staff; it should be mandatory for executives, recruitment and funding panels, and anyone with decision-making power.

Positioning unconscious bias as a one-stop-shop training program, however, is misguided. Most of this training merely scratches the surface, helping senior staff understand that everyone has biases they need to control. This can lull leaders into a false sense of confidence and softening the impact of discrimination: if everyone is biased, then no one is responsible. The majority of programs also do not provide practical measures to end unconscious bias. Simply put: training is not enough.

Let’s say you’re on a recruitment panel. Where are the gender equity and diversity guidelines? What is the step-by-step process that each panel member must cover when they assess grants to ensure they are applying relative-to-opportunity measures in a helpful manner? Who is monitoring decision-makers and making them accountable for biases? This can’t simply be left for groups to police themselves, especially when most decision-making groups in STEMM continue to be dominated by White, cisgender heterosexual men.

LGBT Climate in Physics report by LGBT+ Physicists
LGBT Climate in Physics report by LGBT+ Physicists

In my other life, a very senior, White male heterosexual scientist said to me he honestly did not believe homophobia played a role in hiring practices. He should know, he said: as a senior STEMM executive, he oversees hiring in STEMM faculties. He would not abide by discrimination, he said. I asked him: how many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex or asexual (LGBTQIA) scientists did he know in his faculty? (I happen to know there are none who are “out” from mid-career upwards.) None, he conceded – but this was not due to bias in hiring, he said, incensed at the thought that his unconscious bias detector might be off.

I noted he could not guarantee that bias was not taking place, given that a recent study shows that gay men and lesbians are less likely to get a call back for a job, and they are offered a lower starting wage than heterosexual counterparts, especially lesbians. Similarly, LGBTQIA staff experience a range of overt hostility and subtle exclusion everyday in their faculties, such as in physics.

How would a panellist possibly know someone is gay, said the White heterosexual man? No one is discriminating on his watch! Another White woman from his faculty spoke up and said that the point was that he cannot guarantee if there are no ways to monitor for biases, irrespective of training.

My point here is that even amongst allies with good intentions, bias training gives a false sense that simply being aware of bias reduces discrimination, unconscious or otherwise. The threat of being called homophobic (or racist, sexist, ableist and so on) is more incredulous to even the most committed leaders than actual acts of discrimination which are well-documented.

So: training is important, but it’s the first step amongst many that institutions need to take.


Kiwi Foo path to my talk
Kiwi Foo path to my talk

I argue that in order to really tackle institutional gender equity and diversity patterns in STEMM, we need a multi-dimensional approach, and one that is guided by intersectionality. Intersectionality is a concept examining how the effects of gender discrimination are multiplied by racial discrimination, along with other forms of social disadvantage.

I discussed how most equity and diversity programs have focused on support for White middle-class, heterosexual women. Corporate diversity programs in general focus on hiring but they do nothing to support minority staff once they enter an organisation. Thirty-years of data show that minority women and men benefit very little from current equity strategies. White women benefit almost exclusively from affirmative action programs. Moreover, bias training for mangers has the least impact in terms of hiring, retention and promotion of minority women; while mentoring has little impact on anyone other than White women (because these programs match White women with other White managers and do not address the impact of race on gender equity). The most successful and truly inclusive gender equity and diversity programs address intersectional concerns, specifically by having clear responsibilities assigned to managers who are tasked with improving equity and diversity.

This sounds like I talked a lot, but actually I spoke only for around 30 minutes leaving half an hour for open discussion. I received excellent questions that led to interesting discussion; I want to share a couple with you.

Addressing gender equity and diversity

Informed and practical ways to enhance gender equity and diversity in STEMM
Informed and practical ways to enhance gender equity and diversity in STEMM

One White woman talked about technology that strips out gender identifiers to minimise bias. These apps are good, but I will note that gender and race remain present, for example in long career gaps that are easily read as parental leave – especially stigmatising for mothers, or which may also signal chronic illness – which disadvantages people with disabilities. Similarly being educated in a non-English-speaking country identifies ethnic minorities, which I’ve shown elsewhere is a barrier for international students, even if they complete their higher education in Australia.

A Maori man had a wonderful question about how to be a better ally to women academics; he noted that his cultural response to inequity was to try and rush in and “rescue” women and he knew that was inappropriate. But he was at a loss on how to help. I said that recognising this pattern and reflecting on it was an excellent first step that all male allies should take. Additionally, men should use their position to listen to and amplify women’s voices. Speak up when a group of men engage in sexist behaviour, but when women are talking, ensure there is space for them to be heard and for their lived experiences to influence decision-making. Is the room using White women as a proxy for “all women”? This is not good – help to make meetings, conferences, panels and other important decision-making meetings inclusive to women of all backgrounds, including transgender, Indigenous, LBQIA women, women with disabilities, plus others who have intersectional identities (again, a White lesbian is not a good stand-in for “minority women”).

Kiwi Foo Hall CautionOne White male ally asked how we can challenge scientific institutions such as professional associations and science academies, who are resistant to equity programs which they see as diluting science. I said that we need these institutions in particular to lead bold discussions about the definition of merit and “scientific excellence.” These terms were coined in a different era, when men dominated the sciences and could do so by relying on women’s childcare and domestic labour. Do these arcane definitions serve science in the present day, now that we know better? More to the point, can these arguments be used to resist equity and diversity given the wealth of scientific evidence we have about the impact of discrimination in STEMM? We need to push back on this together, and make our institutions accountable for change.

A White woman asked me for the one top action that I think will make the most significant impact on gender equity and diversity in STEMM. I wanted to say two things but in the spirit of playing fair, I nominated making managers clearly responsible for change, especially through targets and key performance indicators for managers, as this is shown to make a dramatic impact on keeping White women and underrepresented groups in STEMM. Workplaces that tie other incentives such as pay increases and manager promotion to gender equity are effective. Ongoing training (rather than one-off) as well as actively supporting the promotion of these groups to higher levels works because manager’s own careers are tied to the embodied support of gender equity and diversity.

I had a couple of questions on intersectionality after my talk; namely how to get started in STEMM. I have written a guideline for defining the issues and for beginning action elsewhere. I will republish and expand on my blog soon.

3 thoughts on “Ways to Enhance Gender Equity and Diversity in STEMM

  1. I really enjoyed this article because I have done quite a bit of research on the topic myself for several school papers on women in STEM fields. It’s disappointing to know that it is still very much a “boys club”. It’s even one of the reasons that has motivated me even more than ever to become an Asian American female astrophysicist! Thanks for writing such a thorough article on your experience discussing the problems in STEM diversity, or lack thereof.


    1. Hi Kailyn,

      Thanks very much for your comment; I’m glad this article was useful. Wonderful to know you are in the field of astrophysics as a woman of colour! I’m grateful to know wonderful and talented women in your field who are achieving so much despite the discrimination they face. The aim to have them (and you!) focus on their science without having to battle structural barriers. Best wishes with your career; it’s such an interesting field.


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