Why Australia must pursue change

30 March 2016

The University of Sydney's first female professor of mathematics Professor Nalini Joshi gave an address to the National Press Club of Australia about women in STEM and the solution to an 88-year-old mathematics problem.

The following is a transcript of an address delivered by Professor Nalini Joshi, Georgina Sweet Australian Laureate Fellow from the School of Mathematics and Statistics, at the National Press Club on 30 March 2016.

Imagine yourself falling in love with the idea of being a scientist.

You may have been inspired by one of the mysterious, abiding questions of the universe, like how to see dark matter, be a time-traveller, or cure cancer. You would start learning how to gather evidence, shape and test your own hypothesis. The great discovery comes like a light bulb switching on in your brain when you realize something unexpected and see the evidence that proves it.

This happened for me as a young woman when I discovered the solution to an 88- year-old mathematics problem and simultaneously discovered how judgments are made about people in the scientific research workplace.

I am here to open your eyes to the reality I see, but this is not a sob story, it is a story of enlightenment. I want to show you that there is a measured pathway and what that pathway entails from each of us. I want to convince you that Australia has to pursue change because the benefits go beyond gender, beyond sexual identity, race and ethnicity and that change.

Australia is frozen in time

I am the first female mathematician ever to be appointed as Professor at Australia’s oldest university. I was the third female mathematician ever elected to the Australian Academy of Science. But when I attend functions at the Academy (at the Shine Dome, wearing a black suit, with a name badge), I am often mistaken for one of the serving staff. And, I am not alone.

Of the professors of mathematical sciences in Australia, only 9% are women. In the natural and physical sciences, about 14% are women. Why? How did we, as a modern, progressive society, let this happen? And, what effect does this have on our scientific achievements?

The Government’s 1988 National Agenda for Women focused on education as a primary driver for change. The 1990 report “A Fair Chance for All” set out objectives to increase women’s participation rate in higher education, particularly in “non-traditional” areas. Now, more than 60% of the undergraduate Bachelor degree completions are female, and more than 50% of Doctorates are awarded to women across all fields.

In the natural and physical sciences, there are corresponding increases. 56% of undergraduates and 50% of PhD students are female. The PhD proportion has been steadily increasing since 2001 while the other figures have stayed approximately stable.

These bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, talented people are eager to find cures for all cancers, explain dark energy, invent faster mobile phones, design robots, become astronauts and prove the Riemann hypothesis, a millennial open problem in mathematics. 

More than a case of 'tick the box'

The push now is subtler, embedded in principles and conventions that are almost invisible, because research in modern science is still conducted within organisational cultures that resemble a feudal monastery:

  • Information is power and it is tightly held. It is difficult to find anything unless you know the right person to ask; 
  • Survival rests on competition, to achieve status or be noticed by a “nobility”; 
  • Unconscious, subjective conventions have evolved in response that impact on everyone, both men and women. 

No matter how well meaning the government or institutional Gender Equity, EEO or HR policies are, they do not ask for reflection and change from individuals embedded in this culture, unless appalling behavior comes to light.

Many of these policies and awards are based on forms that involve ticking a box: Does your selection policy include “identifying a potential female talent pool from which new members can be selected”? Tick the box: Yes, No or Not applicable. I don’t know any institution that would answer “No,” but when it comes to the actual selection process, almost no one talks about or implements action for the identification and search for such a talent pool.

Athena SWAN program is the solution

The solution has been staring at us in the face from the UK for the past ten years. It is called the Athena SWAN program.

To become a member of the program, each participating organization has to sign up to a charter of 10 principles, which are universal principles that any wellmeaning person would agree to.

To be awarded a bronze award from Athena SWAN, organizational andciplinary groupings need to follow three steps:

  • Carry out a nuanced data analysis of the situation; 
  • Reflect on where the holes and deficiencies are; 
  • Propose an action plan to address these holes. 

I am over the moon that the Australian Academy of Science and Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering have joined together to mount a pilot of the Athena SWAN program as part of the Science in Australia Gender Equity (or SAGE) initiative.

The initial reaction from the employers of female researchers in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine or STEMM areas has been wonderful: 32 organizations have signed up to participate in the pilot – this consists of 25 universities, 5 medical research institutes and 2 publicly funded research agencies. At the end of the two-year pilot program, successful organizations will receive bronze awards.

(L-R) Professors Nalini Joshi, Jean Yang, Jacqui Ramagge and Mary Myerscough. The University of Sydney is leading the way with female mathematics professors, with the appointment of Professor Ramagge as Head of School and promotions for Professors Myerscough and Yang this year.

The first step, data analysis, will be a challenge for most pilot participants. Of course they know how many women work there and how many may be promoted there, but they have probably not considered questions like how many are in the eligible pool for the next promotion or how long a period qualified female staff have waited before being promoted. As part of the second step, they have to identify holes, such as whether there are disciplinary areas well behind the national profile, or which may never have appointed a senior woman. The final step will ask for reflection on behavior, communication and culture, in a way that they may never have considered before.

The Athena SWAN evaluations in the UK tell us that the outcomes will encourage and improve the working life of everyone, whether they are men or women, straight or gay.

The evaluation of the pilot will tell us whether Athena SWAN needs adaptation for Australia. We hope that this initiative will transition into a longer term program to be managed by a national not-for-profit company, expected to be set up in the next two years.

Doubling our Nobel Prize winners

I am incredibly pleased to see this happen in Australia. Not just because I am a woman, but because I am fond of our country. We produce so many talented people that we lose and so many great ideas that go elsewhere.

Imagine if we could encourage and keep these talented people. Imagine the great ideas doubling our Nobel Prize winners. Imagine being in a room full of female mathematics professors.

This to me would be the start of a real “fair chance for all”.


This is a transcript of an address delivered by Professor Nalini Joshi, Georgina Sweet Australian Laureate Fellow from the School of Mathematics and Statistics, at the National Press Club on 30 March 2016.

For more about the National Press Club of Australia visit: https://npc.org.au/speakers/women-of-science/