How do we champion women in STEM?

6 March 2019
Noticing unconscious bias is key to promoting gender balance in STEM, says Associate Professor Ruby Lin from the Centre for Infectious Diseases and Microbiology. Dr Lin shares her thoughts on promoting women in STEM.
Associate Professor Ruby Lin and her team.

L-R: Dr Aleksandra Petrovic Fabijan, Associate Professor Ruby Lin, Ms Josephine Ho and Dr Ali Khalid.


We asked Associate Professor Ruby Lin from the University of Sydney School of Medicine to finish our sentences.

Championing women in STEM starts with…

...noticing unconscious bias. When I had my daughter I realised the unconscious bias that exists toward women in research, especially women with kids and/or with carer duties. Meetings were scheduled at family-unfriendly times; drop-offs and pick-ups were seen as slacking off work. Working part-time was deemed as 'not competitive' even though I secured a NHMRC project grant during my second maternity leave.

These series of events forced me to want to do something about it, or at least make people aware of challenges faced by women in STEM with caregiving duties.

I’m contributing to a more gender-balanced world by….

  • advocating and implementing gender balance and diversity at my professional societies by introducing co-convenors
  • ensuring gender balance invite for international and national speakers, and for co-chairs for sessions (one senior pairing with one ECR)
  • increasing invitations and travel grants for early-career researcher women
  • having quiet/family room for delegates with babies so they can listen to the talks while breastfeeding or listen to the talk while watching the kids play
  • allowing researcher to bring young children and attend meetings - when I was on maternity leave, I missed out a lot invited talks and I wished there were quiet rooms at meetings so I can attend and still look after my baby
  • volunteering to sit on interview panels for senior positions at universities, through industry and at medical research institutes to field questions and filter candidates for gender bias behaviours, as well as addressing diversity
  • volunteering at my kids’ school and challenging gender bias activities at schools and Out Of School Hours (OOSH), and implementing changes as a parent through the school community. So far it’s been positive - for example, we're implementing more girls to play chess and soccer during OOSH, since there were comments that only boys can play soccer and chess.

I think the key to encouraging women to take up leadership roles is…

...having the confidence and support network to secure that leadership position. Every successful woman has the backing of a community behind her, whether it’s a partner, family or colleagues.

We also have to get over the 'imposter syndrome' - there is research that says women only ask for promotion when they’ve done over 110% where as men will ask for promotion when they’ve done 70%. Confidence is the key. To get to that position to consider taking up leadership roles, one would have demonstrated competence in technical skills, emotional intelligence and mainly being resilient.

One of the biggest gendered hurdles I had to overcome in my career was…

...when I missed out on a faculty position even though I fit the selection criteria and had skillsets, fellowship and grants and network. In hindsight, this rejection propelled me to reflect on my skills and outlooks, and helped guide me to even greater successes. There is a mantra I like to use often: I never lose… either I win or I learn (cue the song 'Eye of the Tiger').

I train and coach honours, PhD and postdoctoral women researchers by…

...leading by example. I give them enough guidance and freedom to make their own scientific discoveries. I do a lot of career coaching in terms of having a flexible and adaptive mindset, and encouraging women to be open to challenges and opportunities. I introduce them to my networks and let them flourish within it, but it has to be initiated by them - if the mentee doesn’t want to listen, you can’t force them to.

I’ve had students who came back to me years later to thank me for giving them advice, even though at the time they've cried when we talked about the brutal reality of women in science. Having an open mindset and being ready to accept learning opportunities are very important for a person’s development, not just scientific skill development. I train/coach my students, PhD and postdocs and peer-coach them to be mindful and optimistic when facing challenges.

There are many things I wish I had known earlier in my career. One of them is…

...even if I didn’t follow the traditional research track and get fellowships or faculty position, my skillsets are transferable and applicable in industry. I've also learned that traditional 'soft skills' are more important. Technical skills can be taught and learned but soft skills are innate. At my level, how you treat people dictates how quickly things get done for you. I love my network.

Something that needs to change in the roles of professional women caregivers is…

...work flexibility. I remember hearing a comment when I had the opportunity to work from home(because of a lack of childcare options, and it was, "Isn’t it nice to have a holiday in the middle of the week”. It cuts me deeply, even thinking about it now.

Woman (scientists, in my case) with caregiving duties work twice as hard to get things done. I have many women scientist friends who work part time – all of them have commented on how they have to be super organised and efficient to get five days of work done within three days – and that’s a common experience.

This has to change. Working part-time can just be as productive as many women have demonstrated throughout the ages and achieved great things. There are many examples, like Ariana Huffington (Thrive Global, Huffington Post), Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook), Jacinda Ardern (Prime Minister of New Zealand), Melinda Gates (Gates Foundation), and Winnie Byanyima (executive director of Oxfam), among many others.

Three things that drive me most are…

  1. Empower girls to do STEM: there are still too many stereotypes even in this day and age.
  2. Educate the community about unconscious gender bias. Men and Women.
  3. Educate and lobby employers to implement policies to make workplaces family friendly.

I get most frustrated when…

...being mansplained.

Associate Professor Ruby Lin is a Faculty of Medicine and Health researcher at the Centre for Infectious Diseases and Microbiology and is heavily involved in promoting gender balance and women in STEM through various professional networks.

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