Three Melbourne-based scientists are at the helm of a project to promote gender equity in science

Onisha Patel, Devika Kamath and Asha Rao – are among the new group of ambassadors hand-picked by their government in its bid to promoting gender equity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Known for their outstanding contributions in science, Patel, Kamath and Rao are excited about their new roles. They share their thoughts with G’day India.

How challenging is the new role?
ASHA RAO: Promoting gender equity is always a challenge. People are resistant to change and prefer the status quo. The future will be dependent on STEM, whether it is going to Mars or reversing climate change, and we cannot get there if 51 per cent of the population is not encouraged to participate fully.
ONISHA PATEL: It is a great honour to be listed as one of the superstars of STEM. For me it is once in a lifetime opportunity to be part of the superstars of STEM network and promote STEM through my own career journey. The program has just begun so I can’t comment on the challenges but they are part of stepping forward outside my comfort zone!
DEVIKA KAMATH: I’m very honoured to receive this accolade. As a superstar of STEM, I share my journey and my science with the world and I am a visible role model for the younger generation, especially women, so that they will not be intimidated by cultural and gender-based stereotypes but instead be able to see STEM as an exciting and viable career pathway for them too, if they desire. This is an exciting challenge and also a huge responsibility.

Research suggests that the push towards gender equity has been slow. In the Australian context, what would you attribute the reasons to? Why are women outnumbered? What are some of the barriers they face?
ASHA RAO: Often people are so used to the status quo, they cannot see the inherent problems with not having gender equity. The problem is not just in the fields, such as engineering where women are “outnumbered”. Even fields that are often considered more women “friendly” such as nursing have men in senior positions than women. There are many barriers, of which one is that workplaces are not family-friendly, and many employers still see the rearing of children, the future workforce, as “women’s work”.
ONISHA PATEL: There are many reasons for fewer women in STEM and these include lack of visible role models, lack of encouragement from family, lack of understanding of diverse STEM career pathways and social and cultural reservations. There is less representation of women in the media including TV, radio and newspaper and this influences lack of visibility. Additionally, many women in STEM face barriers at work places due to lack of equality, bias, lack of support for promotion and career development, lack of flexible work arrangements due to caring responsibility and toxic workplace culture.
DEVIKA KAMATH: In recent times, creating greater equality between women and men is becoming top priority within the education and research sector. Despite the strides being made in gender equity, there are still many challenges. For instance, while more than half of all undergraduate and PhD students are women, and around 50 per cent of junior science lecturers are women, the under-representation of women, especially in leadership roles, is seen throughout the university sector. It is especially pronounced in disciplines such as science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM). There are several reasons for this. A few of them being: the obligation to choose family over career, the expectation to be highly mobile and relocate to find more permanent and senior academic positions, the need to work overtime hours, the pressure to network and travel to conferences which is not always possible for people in caring roles.

How, in your individual capacity, do you plan to use your knowledge and expertise as influencers to address the gender gap in STEM? What kind of ideas do you have?
ASHA RAO : Just talking to people of both genders will raise the profile of women and help women (and girls) realise that they can have rewarding careers, help more men realise that nurturing a family is gratifying, and help companies realise that making workplaces family friendly will help them attract and retain more capable people.
ONISHA PATEL: STEM careers for girls are often stereotyped at a very young age. When I was young I had education but I never felt empowered. I believe education alone is not enough and we need to empower girls and young women about the endless options that are possible with STEM education and help them to think creatively and confidently. My own career as a structural biologist has allowed me to combine my passions for art and science. The Superstars of STEM program will allow me to be an influencer and a visible role model through my participation in outreach activities, meeting key leaders in business and government, school visits and mentoring programs. When the leadership reflects diversity and inclusivity then we can hope decisions will be made which are more equal and less biased.
DEVIKA KAMATH: Women, especially from diverse backgrounds, are currently under-represented in STEMM fields, partially because of expectations and boundaries put on them by their tradition and culture. I myself grew up in a rather conservative environment where, for a woman, a prime attribute of a successful and fulfilling life was having a family and placing their wishes and needs ahead of her own. I have broken with tradition and chosen a different path by focusing on education and establishing a scientific career overseas which has brought me international recognition. At the same time, by remaining close to my family and connected to my roots, I have been able to show that it is possible to have a good balance between work and family, and that such a life is very fulfilling. My community back home has now embraced this change and is more supportive of young women pursuing their dreams. My alma mater in India use me as an example to inspire students to engage in STEMM while I continue to provide support and mentorship to those students. I also try to encourage parents to support those kids who have an inclination for astronomy and science. Additionally, being a Superstar in STEM allows me to actively contribute to advancing the mammoth effort of establishing diversity and inclusivity (at both junior and senior levels) in STEMM as the new normal.

There is certainly a lot of effort right now being placed on equity, diversity and inclusivity in the field of science. When can we hope to achieve some parity and what needs to be done?
ASHA RAO: There have been many periods of history where it has appeared that we will achieve parity, however in 2019, we still have not achieved it. Just as it is important for all of us in a democracy to be vigilant in protecting our rights, it is important for everyone to be vigilant about gender equity. The moment we lose sight of the goal, we will lose the gains we have made.
ONISHA PATEL: Actions to address and remove barriers for women in science should start at every level including individual, organisational, cultural and societal. As individuals the first step is to change our own attitude and recognise our biases that are ingrained in our society and culture. Studies have shown that science benefits from a diverse and inclusive workplace and it is important to support women in science from a diverse cultural and social background at different career stages. I work at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research and they have Australia’s first onsite childcare centre built within a medical research precinct, which is a huge step forward in support of gender equity in science. We need more examples like this and those that continue to provide a supportive and positive environment for women in science to advance in their professional careers. It would be great to see what comes out from the Women in STEM Decadal Plan developed by the Australian Academy of Science and Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering on behalf of the Australian Government.

Of course, there can be no single or simple solution but how optimistic are you about this new initiative?
ASHA RAO: As the US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg says, having more women in diverse roles and diverse workplaces will make us less of a curiosity. Thus, the more we showcase diverse women and the varied roles that they play in STEM, the more society will realise that men and women are not that different.
ONISHA PATEL: Optimism is important because that is the only way forward. Initiatives like Superstars of STEM by Science and Technology Australia provide a great platform to mobilise and increase visibility of women in STEM. I hope other countries including India develop initiatives similar to this.
DEVIKA KAMATH: I think the first step towards solving a problem is to acknowledge the problem. As a community, we have certainly taken the first step. Initiatives such as the Women in STEMM program by Science and Technology Australia (STA) endeavour to tackle gender equity in STEMM disciplines in Australia. Universities and educational institutions are also very mindful of gender equity. For example, Macquarie University has a proud history of leading the way on gender equity, being the first university in Australia to offer childcare on campus and to appoint a female Vice-Chancellor. So, striving to achieve gender equity is slowly by surely gaining momentum. I would say that every initiative taken by an individual or an institution is a great step forward.