A scientific quandary

Andrea Robinson is defying the trend of gender imbalance in her field. By Caroline Milburn.

Alexander Theatre
Andrea Robinson has welcomed moves to improve the career progression of women scientists.

Professor Andrea Robinson’s achievements place her in a rare category at Monash University. She is one of the few women scientists to reach the top of the academic totem pole in the disciplines of science, technology,  engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM). Robinson, Professor  of Chemistry, a Monash alumna and mother of two, leads a team of researchers conducting ground-breaking work on molecule design. Her team has been working on creating an insulin molecule that doesn’t need refrigeration  and could therefore easily be used by diabetic patients worldwide.

“Chemistry is an art, and you need to have a thorough understanding of your discipline in order to design the way you’ll construct the molecules,” says Robinson. During her undergraduate years at Monash studying a Bachelor of Science with honours from 1985–89, and later when  she  completed her PhD, the number of male and female students studying chemistry was almost equal.

But that gender balance changed dramatically when she began her career as an academic in 1996. She was one of only two female academics on staff when she was appointed as a lecturer in the Faculty of Science’s School of Chemistry. The new job plunged her into a competitive workplace where she  was  also responsible for finding research funding, recruiting staff and leading a research team. In 2001, when she had her first child, she was the first female academic in Monash’s School of Chemistry to take a break in her career to have a baby.

At the time she lacked the confidence to ask her employer for help and advice to keep her career on track. In 2003, when she had her second child, the experience of combining motherhood and work emboldened her to ask for extra support.

“That’s the critical bit of dialogue that often gets missed, because employers and employees, in general, are extremely reticent about discussing personal issues,” Robinson says. “But by not having that frank conversation, it makes it very difficult for women to strategically  manage  work-life balance and their entry into parenthood. “If you want more women to come into STEMM, then you have to realise they’re not willing to sacrifice their life plans in order to do so –and they shouldn’t have to. “It’s amazing, even today, how  many women  in STEMM don’t have children or delay having children until they have higher job security.”

“Employers and employees, in general, are reticent about discussing personal issues.”

Over the past three decades, Monash has developed University-wide programs that promote gender equity and inclusivity for staff and students. Its initiatives include the creation of an equal opportunity advisory committee, support programs for women, such as senior shadowing, mentoring, grants for research,  promotion  and grant-writing workshops, and a gender equity strategy, including equal pay.

But in some fields, such as STEMM, the University is concerned that progress in the number of women gaining leadership roles is too slow. Only one in five senior academic roles in STEMM is held by women, and Monash’s annual improvements are three times slower than the university average for senior  academic  roles. The problem is not unique to Monash. The lack of women scientists in senior academic roles is a pattern repeated nationwide, according to Science in Australia Gender Equality (SAGE), an initiative of the Australian Academy of Sciences aimed at addressing gender equity factors  in STEMM  fields.

“Women comprise more than half of science PhD graduates and early-career researchers, but just 17 per cent of senior academics in Australian universities and research institutes,” according to a SAGE spokesperson. Studies have revealed many reasons for the under-representation of women scientists  in  leadership roles at universities. Women are often disadvantaged by family responsibilities, by reduced job mobility compared with male academics, by the role of research, teaching and administration in appointments and promotions, by lack of career planning, lack of mentors and networking,  by  unconscious bias and direct discrimination.

To improve the career progression of women scientists at Monash, the University has become one of the founding participants in a pilot program run by SAGE. The pilot is part of a broader international initiative, called the Athena SWAN program. Athena SWAN was established in the UK in 2005 in response  to  chronic under-representation of women in science leadership. It’s helping to address institutional discrimination by establishing a transparent system of gender equity accreditation awards for organisations. Monash is working towards achieving an Institutional Bronze Award in 2018.  Bronze  accreditation begins with the University benchmarking current activities and experiences. The University then develops and implements a plan, based on data and input from staff.

Robinson says the university’s involvement in the Athena SWAN program is a welcome initiative. Currently, of the 33 academic staff employed at Monash’s School of Chemistry, six are women. She says a recent downward trend in the number of females choosing to study higher degrees (PhD and  MSc)  in chemistry at Monash is reason for concern.