Chief Scientist on International Women’s Day 2021

Wednesday, 17 March 2021

Dr Foley speaks at the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy International Women's Day event in Sydney.

Making use of the full human potential is at the heart of the drive to encourage diversity in the STEM workforce, according to Dr Cathy Foley, Australia's Chief Scientist, on the occasion of the 2021 International Women's Day in March.

In an article published in The Australian*, Dr Foley said many people are missing out on the opportunity to make a difference through a career in STEM. “We’re not necessarily answering as many challenges as creatively as possible because we’ve only got a subsection of the population and we’re not seeing the breadth and diversity of our perspectives. I think gender is a good way of starting on that.”

Dr Foley says her role is supporting the work of Australia’s Women in STEM Ambassador, Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith, who has achieved significant progress in just two years. “They are really focusing on gathering evidence that shows whether support programs for women and girls are working, and whether they warrant further investment. This is an important step,” she said.

Observing that for a number of reasons, women’s careers often take off in their 40s, Dr Foley considers that there may be opportunity to support women earlier on. “This would require better support systems throughout, as careers in research have evolved to be very demanding. You’ve got to be completely committed at the expense of everything else in your life," she said. She also notes that people whose careers are well established should consider how they can support others whose careers are developing. “People like me need to get out of the way.”

Also as part of this year’s International Women's Day events, Dr Foley delivered the keynote address for the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy International Women's Day Sydney event, where she explored some of the financial and cultural benefits for businesses that ensure diverse workforces and the steps that can be taken at both an organisational and individual level.

During the following question and answer session, Dr Foley outlined the importance of supportive colleagues, psychologically safe workplaces and challenging cultural norms around "women's work" and "men's work".

"The workplace needs to be one that is welcoming. You'll see pockets of great workplaces but you see pockets where they're not good. And one of the things you will notice is that women will leave bad workplaces," Dr Foley explained.

The third piece of the Chief Scientist’s International Women's Day commitments was as a panelist on the Engineers Australia International Women's Day event to discuss Australia's place in space. She was joined by Dr Sarah Cannard, Deputy Industry Director, SmartSatCRC; Dr Kimberley Clayfield, Leader, CSIRO Space Technology Future Science Platform; and moderator Jane MacMaster, Chief Engineer, Engineers Australia.

Reflecting in part on the earlier keynote speech by former NASA astronaut Dr Mae Jemison, Dr Foley explored the diversity of STEM careers beyond traditional academia, increasing women's visibility in STEM careers, and the importance of addressing unconscious bias.

"We haven't got that right yet. It's something where we need to bring it front and centre so that we're not assuming something about someone so they're not given an opportunity... it's something that is really holding back the opportunity for women."

*Read the full article (behind a paywall) here.  

Last updated: Monday, 22 March 2021