The article Women in Leadership:  Facts and Misconceptions in our September 2014 Issue noted that “Despite the solid empirical evidence supporting the case for more women in IT and more women in leadership roles, the issue is still being clouded by a great deal of unconscious bias and pseudo- science.” Some recent media coverage shows more evidence of that.

The topic of women in leadership surfaced in the ABC News on 18th February 2015, when Alan Kohler presented a global graph showing that companies with women on the board perform better. However, he added ruefully that he could not show a similar graph for Australia because we have too few women on boards. A 20 February 2015 article in The Conversation by  Linda Peach, Adjunct Research Fellow at Macquarie Graduate School of Management, quotes the McKinsey & Company statistics:  “When women are included on executive committees, average return on equity improves by 47% and average earnings before interest and tax improve by 55%”.  The article also confirms the lack of women on Australian corporate boards: ” just 17.6% of ASX 200 directors and only 5% of ASX 200 chairs are women.”

The author questions “the idea, put forward in a variety of research over the past twenty years or so, that women on boards improve the moral and ethical decision-making of those boards.” After taking apart some of the misguided  notions  about the contribution  women can make, the author provides “some of the valid and non-sexist reasons for taking steps to increase the gender diversity on boards of directors”, see We need women on boards for many reasons: ethics isn’t one.

Another article in The Conversation, on 25th February 2015 by Sue Wilson, Australian Catholic University, discusses new research findings on the effect of primary school teachers’ gender biases, noting The researchers identified that a worrying number of teachers gave boys higher maths test results than girls of the same ability. They also studied the long-term effects of this bias”, see Teachers’ gender bias in maths affects girls later.

This article stirred up some disagreement and lively discussion in the Australian teaching profession (198 comments), which was the author’s intention: “The ultimate goal of public conversations about studies such as this is to bring about a societal shift on ideas about what genders can or can’t do.”

In fact, there is some evidence of a societal shift. The Australian Academy of Science Academy highlights of 2014 include a November 2014 Science in Gender Equity (SAGE) Forum call for a new gender equity trial. Following a two-day workshop in Canberra, Co-chairs of the SAGE Forum Steering Committee and Academy Council members, Nobel Prize winner Brian Schmidt and Australian Laureate Fellow in mathematics Nalini Joshi said this was “a game-changing moment for inequality in Australian science.”

Professor Joshi said  “We have made appalling progress over the last two decades; each year we train and then lose huge numbers of women from Australian science…. We are now ready to take the next big steps to bring about real change ”.

The workshop discussed costs and benefits of implementing the Athena SWAN Charter. This is an award system, originally developed in the UK,  that rates research organisations based on their gender equity policies and requires them to develop and implement targeted action plans. All Athena SWAN members sign up to the principles of the charter:

  • To address gender inequalities requires commitment and action from everyone, at all levels of the organisation
  • To tackle the unequal representation of women in science requires changing cultures and attitudes across the organisation
  • The absence of diversity at management and policy-making levels has broad implications which the organisation will examine
  • The high loss rate of women in science is an urgent concern which the organisation will address
  • The system of short-term contracts has particularly negative consequences for the retention and progression of women in science, which the organisation recognises
  • There are both personal and structural obstacles to women making the transition from PhD into a sustainable academic career in science, which require the active consideration of the organisation

Professor Schmidt said “This will be resisted by some. But the need is so profound, that changes are coming. And organisations that fail to address gender equity will find it harder to attract the best and brightest….Next year we want to start the ball rolling on a scheme that the research community owns. We want to start with a few institutions and build the take up of the program towards a nation-wide scheme…Making real progress will benefit both men and women, but leaving the status quo will first and foremost disadvantage women.”