Why is science sexist? The great gender disparity gap video

Erin Leitao (r) and Professor Margaret Brimble pictured outside the Science department at the University of Auckland.
LAWRENCE SMITH / FAIRFAX NZ

Erin Leitao (r) and Professor Margaret Brimble pictured outside the Science department at the University of Auckland.

Margaret Brimble had just started as a researcher at the University of Auckland's School of Chemical Sciences when she heard the words that would alter the course of her career.

"What the f&*^ are you doing?," came the bolt of insolence from a male student as she tried to clean a lab space for her experiments.

Brimble went straight to her boss, a man, to complain.

Erin Leitao has recently received a fellowship from the University of Auckland to help her in her research and also her ...
LAWRENCE SMITH / FAIRFAX NZ

Erin Leitao has recently received a fellowship from the University of Auckland to help her in her research and also her busy commitments as a mother of two.

READ MORE:
New Zealand is no paradise: Is it the most sexist place on earth?
Chemistry class just got harder, with four new elements added to the periodic table
The science behind Married at First Sight

"I naturally assumed that my boss would go away and quietly tell (the student) that it wasn't appropriate.

"Instead I saw the boss going off laughing about it. I had been undermined, because that went right through the department. My boss didn't have any respect for me."

Professor Margaret Brimble pictured inside the Science department at the University of Auckland.
LAWRENCE SMITH / FAIRFAX NZ

Professor Margaret Brimble pictured inside the Science department at the University of Auckland.

Brimble said the incident was indicative of the sexism in the early Nineties, and felt left with no option but to uproot her husband, children and career to Sydney.  

"I never wanted to leave New Zealand, but I did go to Australia to escape it, and I remember how free I felt there. It was very difficult to make that decision. But I did it and I didn't look back. I knew from that one comment that I was never going to escape."

Twenty five years on, Brimble is a distinguished professor at Auckland University and has a resume packed with prestigious national and international awards, fellowships and honours for her work in organic and medicinal chemistry.

University of Auckland associate professor Nicola Gaston is the author of Science is Sexist.

University of Auckland associate professor Nicola Gaston is the author of Science is Sexist.

She won three of the top scientific accolades in New Zealand - the Rutherford, Hector and McDiarmid Medal in 2012 alone, 

Ad Feedback

"I've always maintained that to be respected you have to perform, so I've always made sure that my performance is up there so they cannot knock me," she says.

Brimble would like to see more senior female scientists being mentored into high-ranking positions.

"I struggle to find people I can talk to and get advice from. Like any career, I've had some serious downtimes and I've had noone to talk to to say how do I get going," she says.

In October the grand old dame of science and humanities, the Royal Society of New Zealand, attempted to address its gender imbalance.

In 2014, only one in ten fellows were women, but this year the Royal Society took in ten new female fellows for its intake of 19.

Royal Society chief executive Andrew Cleland says women had been reluctant to put themselves forward for recognition in the past and that society's shift to greater diversity was about changing "the whole way in which we operate".

"We're bringing people out into the open who were previously hidden.

"As we build up more and more women inside that community, it will be a richer community."

That's a line Nicola Gaston, author of Science is Sexist, has heard many times before and doesn't agree with.

The University of Auckland associate professor wrote her book in 2015 in response to the institutionalised bias she encountered in her career as a physicist.

She believes the imbalance within science is systemic, and tricky to disentangle.

The fact that people are paying attention now is by no accident, she says.

Looking at participation numbers is revealing. At an undergraduate level, the gender split is even. The parity flows through to PhD and first research jobs, but the number of female scientists reaching higher positions drops off from there.

The reasons for this are varied; the pace at which science is travelling means even a year or two out to have children can mean researchers fall too far behind.

Science can be an adversarial learning environment. Plus, mentoring plays a particularly important role in the science community.

Then there's the cultural reference points: from Walter White in Breaking Bad, to Victor Frankenstein, onscreen scientists are usually portrayed as men.

This year, for the first time, New Zealand researchers set out to find out whether the difference between research grade and academic rank was different for men and women.

Author of the research, Lincoln University's AnnBrower, found men were more than three times as likely to have been promoted to professor among top researchers

"I thought there might be some difference but I didn't think it was going to be that pronounced," says Brower.

"The only thing that you can infer with a fair degree of confidence is that the relationship between research performance and academic rank is very different for men and for women."

That, and that the higher ranks are heavily male dominated.

Along with prestige and ego, this translates to some serious discrepancies in pay.

Lecturers earn anywhere between $65-$85,000, senior lecturers might make high $80,000s to $110,000, while an associate professor makes $110 to $125,000, and a professor will be somewhere north of there.

DREAMING BIG

At a glittering awards evening on the 14th floor of L'Oreal's Australian headquarters in Melbourne, the Real Housewives of Melbourne are mingling with the Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins.

On stage are the four young recipients of the $25,000 L'Oreal Unesco for Women in Science Award; three Australians and chemist Erin Leitao, 33, from the University of Auckland.

Leitao describes her complex research area of polymers, small molecules joined together end to end, using quotidian objects such as freight trains and banknotes.

The benefits of the award are many.

There's the obvious monetary gain, which will enable her to buy new lab equipment, attend international conferences, and set up an office at home.

Beyond the financial rewards, she says the exposure and networking opportunities are "invaluable". There's also the expectation to live up to past winners such as Professor Brimble, and the two female scientists who have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.

Leitao says she's been lucky to have had excellent male mentors throughout her career, who have been very conscious of the drop-off in female scientists at senior levels.

Leitao has her sights firmly set on creating something the world has never seen before.

The biggest applause of the night comes as she tells the crowd that from her office window, she can look out the window and see her young daughter playing in a sandcastle of her early education centre, building her own creations.

* Any aspiring female scientists interested in the L'Oreal Unesco For Women in Science Awards can find out more information here. www.fwis.fr/en/fellowships

 - Sunday Star Times

Comments

Ad Feedback
special offers
Ad Feedback