Chief Scientist highlights ongoing career roadblocks for women

Wednesday, 29 September 2021

Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Cathy Foley, has called on public sector leaders to think more broadly about issues that stall career progression for women.

Australia will not solve its great challenges, including the development of new low-emissions technologies, a space industry, defence and quantum technologies, without making use of the full human potential, Dr Foley says.

Dr Foley made her comments while delivering the Helen Williams Oration, an annual speech focusing on women in leadership hosted by the ACT division of the Institute of Public Administration Australia. The oration is named for Helen Williams, who became the first female secretary of a Commonwealth government department in 1985, aged just 39. 

“I strongly believe that we won’t achieve what we need to as a nation unless we take that diversity message to heart,” Dr Foley told the group. 

“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.”

Dr Foley said the solutions began with the education system, encouraging girls to study science and maths and young women to consider STEM careers.

The latest STEM Equity Monitor shows that more than one third of men in university or vocational 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. 

“When your country is building its future on high-tech STEM-related industries, that’s a problem,” Dr Foley said.

“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. But we need more women in engineering, and also in mathematics, IT and the physical sciences.”

Once in the workplace, all employers must find ways to ensure that women’s careers do not stall when they have children, and again when they experience the menopause, Dr Foley said.

Tenure and promotion opportunities should not be limited for women once they return to work part-time or full-time after having children, Dr Foley said. 
She called for more open conversation in Australian workplaces about the impact of menopause and the need to support women experiencing that phase in their lives, to avoid losing them to the workforce.

Australia is facing a skills shortage, especially in many of the high-tech, skilled fields required to deliver national priority industries and ambitions. This has been exacerbated by the pandemic impact on skilled migration and international students.

“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," Dr Foley said. 

“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.”

The full text of Dr Foley’s Helen Williams Oration can be accessed here.

Last updated: Wednesday, 29 September 2021