Our Bright Stars initiative aims to showcase women researchers working in all fields of research and at all career levels in Australia. So far, we have published the stories of 22 academics, whose research interests stretch from astrophysics to virtual reality. (We’re not quite up to “z” yet, so if you know any zoologists, do send us their details.)
Both evidence and anecdote suggest women face gendered challenges when pursuing academic careers. Rates of employment are lower than those of male PhDs. When jobs are found, they are, on average, lower-paid and/or more precarious. Broader societal trends to criticise and devalue women’s contributions in the workplace also permeate academia: performance review, promotion, student evaluation and peer review have all been documented as harsher experiences for women. Harassment, coercion and sexual assault are also facts in many women’s academic lives, as witnessed by the experiences now shared through #MeTooPhD, #MeTooStem and @MeToo_Academia.
A recent Scientific American blog post called academia “a depressing ecosystem where the scientific contributions of women and men of color, white women, and other marginalized groups are consistently stifled in ways both large and small. As a consequence, some voices are rewarded while others are punished for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of their research.” Beyond the effect on individuals, “tolerating bad behavior means wasted tax dollars, disrupted scientific advancements, and weakened innovation”.
Speaking up and speaking back through social media has brought serious actions to light, and allowed women researchers and their allies to lampoon the behaviour that disadvantages them. For admittedly nerdy LMAO material, see @allmalepanels and the #DistractinglySexy posts in response to Nobel Prize winner Tim Hunt’s assertions that “girls” should stay out of laboratories. For more straight-faced activism, see the stunning collection of biographical, analytical and artistic pieces from The Chronicle of Higher Education on ‘Women and Power in the Academy’. These interventions offer humour and clarity, putting women researchers’ voices front and centre to increase our understanding of academia. A similar approach informs our Bright Stars initiative.
In line with global trends, the majority of our interviewees had held a series of - often temporary or junior - roles at universities, sometimes feeling like a lesser citizen, or worrying they are going to be the oldest research assistant in history. “Nevertheless, she persisted” may be approaching cliché status, but it certainly applies to these women. While celebrating their success, we also acknowledge the alternative choices made by women who haven’t been able to continue with academic research careers. Our Bright Stars’ stories remind us though what is achieved when women’s research aspirations are supported and demonstrates the tremendous capacity present at early and mid-career in our universities. We are hopeful this will translate into an increased proportion of women in senior and leadership positions in the near future.
Browse the interviews to see both the breadth of interests and the impact of women researchers in Australia. This is still a work-in-progress, so feel free to get in touch to nominate yourself or another star to include in our galaxy!