Breaking bias must take effort

04 Mar, 2022
IWD Science

In Aotearoa New Zealand, attracting women into science is not a major problem. The issue is retaining and enabling them to advance at the same rate as men, particularly into leadership positions.

According to the 2018 New Zealand census, women make up 48 per cent of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) workforce, but account for about 30 per cent of CEOs across these fields. The rate for women in senior academic positions is similar.

This year’s International Women’s Day theme is breaking the bias. To mark the day AUT’s School of Science is holding a seminar featuring four women scientists who will speak about their experiences in the academic and commercial world.

Last year Professor Fiona Brooks was the first woman to become AUT’s Dean of the Faculty of Health and Environmental Sciences and all four schools in the faculty are now led by women. One of them, Professor Hannah Buckley, was made Head of the School of Science two years ago.

With a career spanning 30 years she says, gender bias and institutional sexism, are real. Research shows that in the past two decades the vast majority of conference invitations, research citations, fellowships, prestigious awards, and promotions to senior positions go to men, all of which is perpetuated by gender bias and institutional settings. Professor Buckley describes it as death by a thousand cuts but says that acknowledging this is the first step to bringing about change, which must be actively driven.

"If we were to rely on rates of change as they currently are, equity in STEM would not be achieved during our lifetimes. For some fields such as physics, it would be centuries away. That’s too slow. Until science is a place where every scientist feels they belong, my drive to be active in making change will not diminish. Creating equity is not only important for individual women, but also for science.

“We know from research that diversity in the workplace and on project teams of all sorts creates better outcomes. This is crucial as humanity faces the complex challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss, food insecurity, and the growing burden of disease.”

Biology lecturer Dr Leilani Walker is an AUT early career academic. She says to succeed in science assumes the life of a straight white man. “What happens if you are a woman, LBGQTI, Māori or Pasifika? The system, as it is set up, is not able to accommodate any move away from that. How do we create a system where we can bring our entire selves?”

Carmen Doran, CEO of leading medicinal cannabis company Helius Therapeutics, acknowledges the cultural, and socio-economic barriers faced by women. She sees diversity as a strength in achieving the company’s goal of unlocking the potential of medicinal cannabis through advanced research and development. At Helius its chairperson, head of the audit and finance risk committee, chief executive, chief operating officer, director of innovation and productivity, director of commercial operations and managing director of its subsidiary company, Hale Animal Health, are women.

“We are proud of the environment we are building at Helius where all voices and experience are valued in Aotearoa’s newest industry. Diversity and inclusiveness are key to us now delivering the most innovative solutions for Kiwi patients and beyond.”

As part of a R&D collaboration, Helius sponsors three AUT PhD students to work on next-generation cannabis therapeutics. “All three are female, and it wasn’t by design. Rather, all three just happen to be exceptionally talented young women, the perfect fit, and with the R&D passion we need to succeed for patients.”

Professor Buckley says change in the lifetime of students starting out will rely on a concerted effort, at the individual, collective and leadership level. She encourages women to create allies of both sexes and get involved in relationships and networks that support diversity in science. Dr Walker too has found developing a strong network of trusted people is a valuable tool in helping to navigate a career path. “People who acknowledge your lived realities. Mentorship is important and people in power have the ability to make their institutions walk the talk.”

Attend our seminar to find out more

To hear more and ask your own questions, attend the AUT Helius Therapeutics Women in Science Webinar on #BreaktheBias, International Women’s Day, Tuesday 8 March, 9am-11am.

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