Australia’s Chief Scientist Cathy Foley on menopause, role models, women in STEM and the importance of older workers in tackling the skills shortage


Story by: Cathy Foley Startup Daily

During my entire research and work career, I never wanted my gender to be an issue.

I concentrated on continuing with the profession of scientist. But gender is not just ignored.

I remember trying to adapt when I was studying physics in college and just being one of the boys in a pretty male dominated environment. When I got that first job at CSIRO, I decided to wear a dress on my first day. I had never done that in the laboratory during my studies.

But I soon found myself the only scientist in the applied physics laboratory and quickly returned to wearing matching pants.

I have had tremendous support and opportunities in my career. But it is undeniable that challenges and negotiations related to being a woman have always been a part of it.

Now, as Australia's Chief Scientist, I am the country's highest-ranking science and technology advisor. But here I am talking about the challenges women face in the workplace! I wish gender wasn't an issue, but I'll admit it is.

As a senior scientist in Australia, I see myself as a role model for all young people who may not know that they can pursue a career in science. I did, and I want all young people, regardless of their background, to recognize their gender, also know that they can.

But I'll say a little more about that later. Let me begin by addressing some of the points that we need to focus our attention on.

For me, it starts with getting girls excited about MINT subjects – and young women about MINT professions.

The latest STEM Equity Monitor shows that more than a third of men are studying MINT degrees in tertiary education; Areas related to math, science or engineering – excluding health.

But for women it is only 9%.

That means that more than 90% of women at universities or TAFE study for degrees that are not related to STEM. If your country is building its future on high-tech STEM industries, that's a problem.

We need more women in engineering, but also in mathematics, computer science and natural sciences.

When women enter the MINT areas, this is predominantly the case in care professions such as medicine, environmental and veterinary medicine. This is great and there is no way I want to discourage it.

I know that they choose professions where they feel they can make a difference, but I want them to know that they can absolutely make a difference in the physical sciences and complex issues in areas like climate , Tackle energy and water.

The obvious question is: How do we bring about change?

How do we encourage more girls to study STEM in school and pursue a career in science and mathematics?

Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith

I would like to acknowledge the work of our Women in STEM Ambassador, Professor Lisa Harvey Smith and others inside and outside the government who are advocating this agenda. We look for the data we don't already have and measure the impact of ongoing initiatives.

One of the solutions is to increase the visibility of scientific careers – so that you can imagine yourself in a profession that makes sense for you when you study physics or chemistry, just as you can with medicine or law, for example.

Students, teachers and parents must be able to see the end goal – and know what it looks like to have a STEM job.

Role models are also incredibly important. I keep hearing from scientists and researchers about the people who influenced them when they were young. I know that without role models and the encouragement of inspiring teachers and lecturers, I would not have ended up in scientific research.

Keep women in STEM

When young women enter STEM and research careers, the next problem is to keep them there – and to help them move up.

I have spoken to many young and intermediate researchers this year, and the issues they raise are consistent and concern:

Lack of support for flexible and part-time work
Lack of support for non-linear career paths
The unhelpful reconciliation between when women started college and the age at which women had children
The way success is measured reflects an outdated system of release numbers and the like.

It is disturbing to hear women say that part-time employment is detrimental to their careers. On the other side of the coin, I've heard of women who felt judged for going back to work too soon.

This feeling of being judged about your parenting decisions is not limited to the research area.

We also have to remember that our care structures are changing. There are so many parenting combinations and our career expectations have to change for everyone, including men.

One solution that I found interesting in the research area is at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne.

They have a number of promotions and career breaks in place to ensure women's careers stay on track, including building a daycare center next to their laboratories.

You also shook up the usual appointment system. Instead of the usual gap between short-term postdocs and permanent employees, everyone has a contract in the first few years.

These are just a few ideas. We need others. We need different methods of measuring success in the research system that are not based on a career path with a narrow population.

We need different expectations in the workplace.

Older working women

Now I would like to direct the focus of my comments to the other end of the age spectrum. Because we also have to keep women in work until the 50s and 60s.

There are many problems for older workers:

The population is aging and we can no longer afford people to retire when they are 55 or 60 years old. Australians have to work longer.

That's a good thing. In my experience, it was at this point that I saw the careers of women accelerate. This enables us to expand this cohort of older female role models and leaders.

I also think that when looking for ways to address our skills shortage, we should keep in mind that older workers with STEM skills are a valuable pool to draw from. This is particularly relevant at the moment, given the restrictions on entry abroad.

But there are barriers. One of them is age discrimination.

Time to talk about menopause

There is an additional level for women and that is menopause. Yes you heard me right!

I would like to talk a little bit about it today because the system does not always support this phase of life for women. If we fail to find ways to better support women going through menopause, we risk losing the skills and leadership skills of women between 40 and 50.

Menopause is not discussed enough. I know I would not have felt comfortable speaking about it publicly when I had the experience myself a few years ago.

It is not a small group. Half of the population is going through menopause. And it's not a moment – it's a process that takes a few years.

But there is surprisingly little research on the impact of menopause on the careers of women in Australia. Which is likely due to it not having enough focus or visibility.

There is a strong focus in Great Britain.

The UK Parliament opened an investigation earlier this year and found that more than a million women in the UK had stopped working because of symptoms. This is exactly the point in your career where you should be in managerial positions – the trailblazers and role models for younger people.

An increasing number of women in the UK initiate cases of discrimination in the workplace because of menopause.5 6

The British Medical Association reports that women doctors are reluctant to talk about their own experiences for fear of damaging their careers, being ridiculed or making the situation in male-dominated workplaces worse.7

Women often avoid talking to superiors about their symptoms because superiors are men or younger. We can be sure that the same things will happen in Australia and that women will quit their jobs because of it.

I don't know to what extent. But I know we have to do everything we can to ensure that women are supported and productive at work well into their 50s and 60s9.

That means being aware of the challenges that menopause can pose and thinking about ways to alleviate them.

Older workers solve skills shortages

This is a question of equity. It's also about making sure we have this pool of female role models and leaders.

And it is about the future of our nation and the prosperity of our nation.

Dr. Cathy Foley in CSIRO time. Photo: CSIRO

The last thing we want to do is make qualified researchers, scientists and engineers feel that the workforce has no place for them in the final decades of their careers.

Australia has lost a stream of skilled migration as a result of COVID.

In 2019, 60% of 60 to 64 year olds were in employment – compared to only a third in 1999. This is a really significant change. From 33% to 60% in 20 years. This applies to people between the ages of 60 and 64.

It takes time to get through the education system a pipeline of skilled workers in new industries who are trained and ready.

The older workforce offers one of the solutions and we should use it.

With this in mind, I was very happy about the start of the Stem Returners program in Australia. The aim here is to encourage highly qualified people with a STEM background to return to the world of work after a career break, to connect them with jobs and to look after them through Engineers Australia.

It starts with 12 weeks, then the jobs can be unlimited if the fit is right.

This seems like an excellent program for both sides of the equation – creating a way back into the labor market for skilled workers and creating a talent pool for industries with a skill shortage.

Woman who leaves her mark

Women also assert themselves in science.

Anyone who has seen the impromptu standing ovations for the scientists behind vaccine development at Wimbledon probably shares my feeling that this was a pretty emotional moment.

It was an important recognition of the work of Dame Sarah Gilbert, but also of all the researchers and scientists who have played such an important role in responding to the pandemic. It was a real vote of confidence by the public in science – and that's a good sign.

In 2020 women received the Nobel Prize for both physics and chemistry.

In Australia, women have the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council – our two main research funding agencies. The new CSIRO Chief Scientist is a woman. The chief defense scientist is a woman.

So yes, changes are slow. But there is momentum. Having women in these really high positions normalizes.

One of the challenges for female leaders is the feeling that maybe they shouldn't really be there – a kind of impostor syndrome. But it is time to take impostor syndrome off the list of worries.

This is the time to stand up with confidence and lead by example to inspire and advance the careers of the women who stand behind us.

The Science Plus model

It is great that we scientists are called upon to face some of Australia's greatest challenges. And that the role of scientists in our future prosperity will be recognized – as we accelerate new low-carbon industries, address climate change, establish a space industry, promote medical manufacturing, use the incredible new digital tools and quantum technologies.

But science alone cannot solve the challenges.

We need what I call “Science Plus”.

Solutions to the challenges we face need science plus technology, science plus design, a business case, the right regulation and a social license.

Bringing all these puzzle pieces together is the way to make a real impact. This is about different disciplines, but also about different ways of thinking.

We need engineers, economic experts, marketing and communication experts, ethicists and people with the ability to think differently about security and acceptance in society.

I would like to leave these thoughts to you today.

I firmly believe that we as a nation will not achieve what we need if we do not take this message of diversity to heart.

It is easy to fall into the error of the average.

The assumption that society does its job by orienting itself towards the average. It's like imagining that the bell of the bell curve is the only game. And forget that five out of 100 people are not part of the big crowd in the middle.

For any given parameter, they fit into the tail at the ends of the bell curve. Remember, those five out of 100 are still part of the normal distribution.

Science is more than Eureka moments. It's about insight. It's about the pursuit of excellence.

We have breakthroughs when we look for new ways to apply our knowledge or to look for new ways of thinking about complex problems.

When we take risks. And when we use all of our human potential in everything we do.

Recognizing and accepting differences is the way in which we add depth and richness to our decision-making.

My approach is Science Plus. I ask you, as leaders, to think about how you will broaden your approach to reach the full human potential in your sectors.

This is an edited version of the Helen Williams speech by Chief Scientist Dr. Cathy Foley at the Institute of Public Administration Australia. You can read Helen Williams' full speech here.


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