What it's like to be a woman in science

17 September 2015

With the launch of the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) pilot program, Professor Nalini Joshi describes her experience as the first female mathematics professor at Sydney.

This week saw the launch of the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGEpilot program by the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) in partnership with the Academy of Technological Science and Engineering (ATSE).

The program will include the University of Sydney.

SAGE is a gender equity program to address the chronic underrepresentation of women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM).

In the following extract, Professor Nalini Joshi reflects on her experiences working in the field.

Professor Nalini Joshi

I was the first female professor of mathematics ever appointed to the University of Sydney, Australia’s oldest university. I remained in that singular position for 14 years, until July this year when the number doubled; we now have two female professors of mathematics!

When I arrived, the most common question I got asked was: “are you a real professor?” I tried to respond: “yes, according to my payslip, I am.” Later I worked out what the question meant. Was I a chair of a discipline area? Or a permanent named chair corresponding to distinctive research and scholarly leadership? Or was my position of lesser distinction?

I wondered then whether new male professors would have been asked that question. The underlying message was that being female is incompatible with being chair of a discipline. It also implied that I couldn’t belong.

I have been the only woman in most rooms for most of my professional life. I had come to terms with contradictory subliminal messages a very long time ago, and they were not going to stop me pursuing and solving problems in mathematics.

The standard approaches undertaken by Australian organisations for equity have been blind and deaf to these subliminal messages. Most organisations would say they are ticking all the right boxes for equity, but at the same time remain puzzled by the persistent lack of diversity at the senior levels.

The SAGE initiative aims to create a framework that will bring systemic, subliminal bias to light and change the gendered landscape in Australian organisations.

Nalini Joshi is the Georgina Sweet Australian Laureate Fellow in Mathematics and the Chair of Applied Mathematics at the University of Sydney.

This is an extract of an article first published in The Conversation.

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