Monash Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences proactive in dealing with gender inequity

Athena SWAN

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. The loss of so many women scientists is a significant waste of expertise, talent and investment, and this impacts our nation's scientific performance and productivity.

In 2005 the Athena SWAN program was established in the UK. An accreditation and improvement  program for higher education and research organisations, its entire focus is on gender and other forms  of inequality. The Athena SWAN Charter is proving highly successful in transforming gender equity  action to improve the promotion and retention of women and gender minorities within science, technology, engineering, medicine and mathematics (STEMM) in the UK.

In Australia, the Australian Academy of Sciences has started a trial of Athena SWAN in 25 universities to reverse the trend in which, currently, women occupy only about 17 per cent of science  positions at associate professor level and higher.

Monash is a participating university and has already held a series of unconscious bias programs for research managers within the three Discovery Institutes within the Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences. More importantly perhaps, the faculty has three women at the  very top of its research tree: Christina Mitchell, Australia’s only female Dean of Medicine for a Go8 university; Kim Cornish, the Director of the Monash Institute for Cognitive and Clinical Neurosciences  (ICCN); and Wendy Brown, the first head of Department of Surgery in Australia.

Professor John Carroll, Head of the Monash’s Biomedicine Discovery Institute, who is leading the University's participation in the Athena SWAN pilot, said the challenge is to address the often tacit gender biases that disadvantage women in science. It was widely acknowledged that women’s research careers, which  are driven by winning grants and publishing journal articles, can struggle to survive a career break when  they have families and end up bearing much of the caring responsibility. 

“We decided to tackle unconscious bias in leadership positions because we are in a situation where five  of our six heads of department and five of our six program leads are men. So while we clearly have a lot  of women at the very pinnacle of our university, there is a barrier that seems to limit leadership  opportunities at the department and school level,” Professor Carroll said.

“In part this can be attributed to the historically low numbers of women in senior academic positions,  but we want to be sure there are no other barriers in place, such as unconscious bias.”

The Leadership team has recently attended “unconscious bias” workshops and they will be rolled out across the faculty. According to Professor Moira O’Bryan, who heads the Gender Equity Committee, which covers the three Discovery Precinct Institutes:  the Biomedicine Discovery Institute (BDI), the Institute of Cognitive and  Clinical Neuroscience (ICCN) and Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute, other initiatives to improve  the gender balance within the faculty include setting targets of no less than 40 per cent of either gender on any  committee with influence over careers, including promotion, probation, recruitment and short listing for position at leave C or above.

“We need to make sure that the committee that promote staff are  themselves representative of general society and have a broad vision of what success looks like," Professor Moira O'Bryan said.