2021 Helen Williams Oration

Wednesday, 29 September 2021

Australia's Chief Scientist, Dr Cathy Foley, delivered the 2021 Helen Williams Oration at an IPAA ACT virtual event on Wednesday 29 September 2021.

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Embracing difference: Tackling Australia’s skills shortage while addressing the needs of a diverse workforce

I am speaking on the traditional lands of the Cammeraygal people. I pay my respects to them and to the traditional custodians of other lands where audience members are based. 

I acknowledge the elders who are caring for those lands. I pay my respects to the old ones who have come before and the young ones who will follow.

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I also want to recognise the people working from home for the past 18 months – I know it’s enormously difficult for families, but not only for families. 

I’m concerned about the impact on people living alone and the lasting effects on young people.

Many Australians are experiencing very tough times, and I know that as we focus on pandemic recovery, this is top of mind for governments, business owners and workplace managers alike. 

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I understand Helen Williams has joined us. Hi Helen. Your achievements have brought us together today and I am honoured that you are here.

When Helen made history in 1985 - becoming the first female Secretary of a Commonwealth department at the age of just 39 - that was the same year I joined the CSIRO as a research fellow. 

I can still remember that first day, driving up to the gate and thinking: this could be fun for three years. Little did I know I would be there for 36! 

I’ll say at the outset that throughout my research and working career, I have never wanted my gender to be an issue. 

My office reached out to Helen Williams as I was preparing to speak with you today and she made a similar observation. She said she always wanted to be treated as a person, first. 

Me too! I was focused on getting on with the job of being a scientist.

But gender is not easily ignored. I remember trying to fit in when I studied physics at university, and just be one of the boys in what was a pretty male-dominated environment. 

So when I got that first position at the CSIRO, I decided to wear a dress on my first day. This was not something I had ever done in the lab when I was at university. 

But I soon found as the only female research scientist in the applied physics lab and I reverted quickly to wearing trousers to fit in. 

I’ve had enormous 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 I am, as Australia’s Chief Scientist, the most senior science and technology adviser in the country. Yet here I am talking about the challenges facing women in the workplace! 

I might have wished gender was not an issue, but I acknowledge that it is. 

I know also that I am a role model, whether I like it or not, and just like all of the workplace leaders in the audience, our responsibility is to influence for change.

I welcome this opportunity today to talk about these issues. Thank you the IPAA for providing it. 

Before I come to the detail, I want to note that while many of my messages are about women, many are not specific to women. 

As Australia’s Chief Scientist, I see myself as a role model for all young people who might not realise that they can aspire to a career in science. I did it, and I want all young people, however they identify their gender, whatever their background, to know they can too. 

But I’ll say a little more about that later. First, I want to zero in on some of those points where we need to focus our attention.

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For me, it starts at the beginning with encouraging girls into STEM subjects - and young women into STEM careers.

The latest STEM Equity Monitor shows that more than a third of men in tertiary education are studying STEM qualifications; areas related to maths, or the sciences or engineering – excluding health.

But for women, the figure is only 9 per cent.  

That is, more than 90 per cent of women at university or TAFE are studying for qualifications not related to STEM. When your country is building its future on high-tech STEM-related industries, that’s a problem.

We need more women in engineering, and also in mathematics, IT and the physical sciences. 

Where women are entering the STEM fields, it’s overwhelmingly in the caring professions such as medical, environmental and veterinary science. That’s great and I certainly don’t want to discourage it. 

I know they are choosing careers where they feel they can make a difference, but I want them to know that they can absolutely make a difference working in the physical sciences, tackling complex issues in areas such as climate, energy and water.

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

How do we encourage more girls to study STEM at school and aspire to careers in the fields of science and maths?

I want to acknowledge the work of our Women in STEM Ambassador, Professor Lisa Harvey Smith and others in and outside of government championing this agenda, seeking out the data that we still don’t have and measuring the impact of initiatives underway.

One of the solutions is to improve visibility of science careers – so you can see yourself in a career that makes sense to you if you study physics or chemistry, just as you can with, say, medicine or law. 

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

Role models are also incredibly important. I am constantly hearing from scientists and researchers about the people who influenced them with they were younger. I know I wouldn’t have ended up in science research without role models and encouragement from inspiring teachers and lecturers.

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Once young women enter STEM and research careers, the next problem is keeping them there – and helping them progress upwards.

I have been talking with many early and mid-career researchers this year, and the issues they raise are consistent and concerning:
•    Lack of support for flexible and part-time work
•    Lack of support for non-linear career paths
•    The unhelpful alignment between the timing of university careers and the age when women have children
•    The way success is measured, which reflects an out-moded system of publication numbers and the like .

It is troubling to hear women saying that going part-time at work damaged their careers.

On the other side of the coin, I have heard from women who felt judged for going back to work too soon. 

This feeling of being judged about your parenting decisions is not confined to the research sector.

Helen Williams also speaks about the negative response when she took maternity leave in 1987.

Because of her pioneering role as the first female Secretary, she was seen as letting the side down - “ruining the cause”.

It’s just so disappointing to be still hearing similar messages from women in their 30s now, 35 years later.

When Helen returned to work she found her position had been disestablished in a reorganisation of departments. So she was suddenly an Associate Secretary…

Not that it held her back for long. She had a stellar and highly successful career heading a number of departments. But it’s salutary.

Helen talks about the need to tackle those structural issues so that if you take time off, or take a period of part-time work, your career doesn’t stall – you can return and still progress.

I endorse this wholeheartedly, I would encourage you all to take this message to heart as you consider the role of women in their 30s.

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

One solution I found interesting in the research sector is at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne. They are one of the leading research institutions in the country and have been very proactive on issues of equity – with plenty of lateral thinking. 

They have a range of measures around promotions and career breaks to ensure women’s careers stay on track, including building a childcare centre adjacent to their laboratories.  

They have also shaken up the usual system of appointments. Instead of the usual divide between short-term post-docs and tenured academics, everyone is on a contract in those first years. 

These are just some ideas. We need others. 

We need different ways of measuring success in the research system that aren’t based on one kind of career path followed by a narrow population.

We need different expectations in the wider workplace.  

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I have spoken so far about those early years, and ensuring careers don’t get stuck in quicksand once children come along.

Now I want to shift the focus of my comments to the other end of the age spectrum.

Because we also need to keep women in work through their 50s and 60s.

There are a lot of issues in the mix for older workers.

The population is ageing and we can no longer afford to have people retiring at 55 or 60. Australians need to work longer.
This is a good thing. In my experience, this is when I have seen women’s careers accelerate. This allows us to expand that cohort of senior female role models and leaders.

I also think that as we look for ways to address our skills shortage, we should remember that older workers with STEM skills are a valuable pool that we can draw from. This is especially pertinent at the moment given the restrictions on overseas arrivals.

But there are barriers.

One of these is age discrimination, and I know the Age Discrimination Commissioner has been doing some important work in this space.

For women, there is an added layer, and that is the issue of menopause. Yes, you heard me right! 

I want to talk a bit about that today, because the system doesn’t always support this phase of women’s lives.

Unless we find ways to better support women during menopause, we risk losing the skills and leadership of women in their 40s and 50s.

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Menopause is not discussed enough. I know I wouldn’t have felt comfortable talking publicly about it when I went through the experience myself some years ago.

It’s not as though it’s a small group. Half the population goes through menopause. And it’s not a moment in time – it’s a process that takes some years.

But there is surprisingly little research relating to the impact of menopause on women’s careers in Australia. Which probably reflects the fact that it has not had enough focus or visibility. 

In the UK, there’s a strong focus.

The British Parliament started an inquiry this year - noting that more than one million women in the UK have left their jobs because of symptoms. 

This is just at the point in their careers when they should be in senior positions - the trailblazers and role models for younger people. 

A growing number of women in the UK are launching employment discrimination cases as a result of menopause.
  
The British Medical Association reports that female doctors are reluctant to speak about their own experiences for fear of damaging careers, being ridiculed or making things worse in male-dominated workplaces.
 
Women often avoid speaking to managers about their symptoms because managers are men or they’re younger.
 
We can be sure these same things are happening in Australia, and women are leaving work because of it.

I don’t know to what extent.

But I do know that we have to do everything we can to keep women supported and productive at work through their 50s and into their 60s . 

This means being aware of the challenges that can arise from menopause, and considering ways to ameliorate them.

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This is a matter of equity – we all know about the superannuation disparity when women have interrupted careers or leave work earlier.

It is also a question of ensuring we have that pool of senior female role models and leaders.

And it is about our nation’s future and our nation’s prosperity.

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

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

It takes time to get a pipeline of skilled workers in new industries through the education system, trained up and ready.
The older workforce provides one of the solutions and we should be using it. 

On this note, I was really pleased to see the launch of the Stem Returners program in Australia. This is about encouraging highly skilled people with STEM backgrounds back into the workforce after a career break, and linking them with jobs, as well as mentoring through Engineers Australia.

It starts with 12 weeks, then if the fit is right, the jobs can become permanent. 

This looks like an excellent program for both sides of the equation – providing a pathway back into the workforce for skilled workers, and a talent pool for industry sectors facing skills shortages. 

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I have talked a lot so far about the problems – those patches of quicksand where careers can get really stuck.

It’s easy to see those negatives given what sometimes feels like such a glacial pace of change and the discussions we are having in Australia at the moment are a reflection of that. 

And then we see the stories and pictures from Afghanistan. When women risk their lives just to speak out, or argue for an education, or even the right to leave their homes alone. It can feel like progress is just far too slow. 

But then I cast my mind back to when I was a child in the 1960s and realise how far we have come in my lifetime, at least here in Australia.

When my mother had children she had to leave her job - that was the rule where she worked at the NSW Railways.

Helen Williams recalled being asked to "play mother" when the tea trolley arrived during a Treasury gathering in the 1970s.

When she was promoted into the SES in 1979, there was resistance.

After her appointment as Education Secretary, it was 17 years - seventeen years - before another woman came to head a department. 

But the landscape changed during her career as it did for me and it is no longer unusual to have a female Secretary. 

Most recently, Katherine Jones has just taken up her appointment as the first female Secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department in its 120 year history! That’s a milestone.

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Women are also making their mark in science.

Anyone who saw the spontaneous standing ovation at Wimbledon for the scientists behind vaccine development probably shares my feeling that this was quite an emotional moment.

It was important recognition of the work of Dame Sarah Gilbert, but also of all the researchers and scientists who have played such a key role in the pandemic response. It was a real demonstration of public trust in science – and it bodes well.

I’m not going to measure progress by Barbie characters, but I couldn’t help but smile when I saw that Barbie – yes even Barbie! – now has a new series of female professors and doctors on the frontline of the COVID pandemic.

There’s an Australian doctor in the group, a doll based on Bendigo GP Kirby White. She is a GP who raised money to make reusable gowns for doctors when supplies ran low last year. 

I know it’s Barbie with all of the Barbie baggage.

But with our understanding that role modelling is so important, I welcome this.

I referred earlier to the under-representation of women studying STEM subjects in the physical sciences.

But despite the low numbers, women are making their mark in some subjects that have been considered male bastions.

In 2020, women won the Nobel Prizes for both physics and chemistry.

In Australia we have women heading the Australian Research Council, and the National Health and Medical Research Council - our two main research funding bodies. The new CSIRO Chief Scientist is a woman. The Defence Chief Scientist is a woman.

So yes, change is slow. But there is momentum. Having women in these really senior positions is normalising. 

One of the challenges female leaders face is the feeling that perhaps they shouldn’t really be there –a kind of imposter syndrome. 

But it is time to take imposter syndrome off the list of things to worry about.

This is the time to stand confidently and lead by example to inspire and advance the careers of women who come behind us.

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I started by talking about my identity as a scientist first. 

This is the lens through which I view my leadership role and through which I can encourage new ways of thinking.

Navigating these unprecedented times has seen the elevation of science in the public sphere.

It’s great that we scientists are being called on to help address some of Australia’s greatest challenges. And that the role of scientists is being recognised in our future prosperity – as we look to accelerate new low-emissions industries, address climate change, launch a space industry, boost medical manufacturing, embrace 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 engineering, science plus design, a business case, the right regulation and social licence.

Bringing together all of these pieces of the puzzle is the way to achieve real-world impact.

This is about different disciplines but it’s also about different ways of thinking.

We need engineers, experts in business, marketing and communications experts, ethicists and people with the capacity to think in nuanced ways about safety and community acceptance. 

This is the thought I want to leave you with today.

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I strongly believe that we won’t achieve what we need to as a nation unless we take that diversity message to heart. 

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

The assumption that by catering for the average, society is doing its job. 

It’s like imagining that the bell of the bell curve is the only game. And forgetting that five out of every 100 people are not part of the great bulk in the middle. 

They fit into the tails at the ends of the bell curve for any given parameter. 

The thing to remember is that these five in 100 are still part of the normal distribution. 

Science is more than Eureka moments. It is about insight. It is about striving for excellence. 

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

When we take risks.

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

Recognising and embracing difference is how we add depth and richness to our decision-making.

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My approach is Science Plus.

I ask you, as leaders, to think about how you will broaden your approach to unlock the full human potential in your sectors.

As we navigate the ‘new normal’ of our working environment how will you shape it for the better? When you’re thinking about issues that impact specific groups, how will you involve the whole workforce in the solution?

Parental leave, for example, is not only an issue for women. Likewise, part-time work and how that impacts advancement is not only an issue for women. It might disproportionately impact women. But colleagues and supervisors all need to share in the solution. The same applies to menopause, and to older workers more broadly. 

Across the Public Service, you are the facilitators of change.

Where you have a seat at the table, use it to invite others in.

Thank you.

Last updated: Thursday, 30 September 2021