More women than ever are stepping into labs, but few of them are making it to science's highest offices. Science reporter Jamie Morton looks at what can be done to close the gender gap.

Dr Nicola Gaston tells a story about an encounter at an international conference dinner one night in 2012.

Sitting with a group of five, four of whom she knew well, a senior member of the quantum chemistry academy running the conference stopped by to talk to someone opposite her.

The conversation was about one of the talks that morning.

The visitor said to Dr Gaston: "I'm sorry, we must be boring you."


She assured him that wasn't the case.

"Oh, but you aren't one of us, are you?" he continued. "What I mean is, you aren't a scientist, are you?"

The table now in silence, she replied: "Actually, yes I am."

The man's forehead wrinkled, he smiled, and asked: "Oh, what kind of science? What I mean is, you aren't our kind of scientist, are you?"

She said something to the man, headed straight for the bar, and it was there that she noticed her environment.

At the tables behind her, filled mostly with students and postdoctoral researchers, the gender split was 50/50, while the tables surrounding hers, hosting working scientists, were largely full of men. At the front, where VIPs and members of the academy were seated, the ratio was again half and half - but only because the men had brought their wives.

Dr Nicola Gaston says we're a long way from a level playing field for scientists.
Dr Nicola Gaston says we're a long way from a level playing field for scientists.

Dr Gaston's story paints a familiar picture for women in science. Figures collected by the Association for Women in Science (AWIS), as at 2011, showed a disproportionate number of men in senior positions at the country's Crown research institutes and among science heads of departments across our universities.

Despite the fact that the past three recipients of our highest science and technology honour were women, the large majority of major science prize recipients are men.


Fewer than 10 per cent of Fellows of the Royal Society of New Zealand were female, and the spread was uneven across the disciplines, with the larger proportion of women in the social sciences, health sciences and humanities. Computer science, engineering and physical sciences, physics and mathematics have been cited as the most under-represented areas.

The society's chief executive, Dr Di McCarthy, said women were also under-represented on research funding committees.

Yet there is no shortage of women in lower levels of the sector. Recent figures showed the proportion of women in the science workforce had increased to 50 per cent.

Dr Gaston, a senior lecturer at Victoria University and president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, said there were a good number of women today across lower university positions, giving the impression we were just seeing the change now.

"But in reality, women made it to the junior academic ranks 30 to 40 years ago - we simply haven't seen them come through," she said. "This is true even in fields such as biology, which can be dominated by women at the lower levels of seniority."

High-profile molecular biosciences lecturer Dr Heather Hendrickson said academic science required a long, low-paid apprenticeship period taking anything up to 12 years after a bachelor's degree, and while many women started down this track with passion, many did not persist.

The Massey University scientist's personal experience of watching talented female friends choose other paths suggested there may be many women who were capable but left before they reached the faculty level. When she began graduate school 13 years ago, half her classmates were female, and many of them thought it would stay that way.

"Those friends and women like them have left science by my stage, as lecturer, because either a partner's job was given preference, family issues took priority or because science was not a good fit."

The challenges women in science faced, said AWIS national convener Dr Esther Haines, were complex and their relative importance varied from person to person. She characterised issues as structural, pragmatic and cultural, but all could interweave.

"Examples of structural issues would be the long training period for scientists - four years for a first degree, and typically four years, or longer, after that to gain a PhD - and the prevalence of short-term contract positions in the early to mid-career stages of an academic career."

Two pragmatic issues that came up frequently were difficulties in accessing high-quality childcare or with finding a job in the same geographic region as a partner, while cultural issues included unconscious bias, stereotype threat and family expectations.

But Dr Gaston said there had been a change in attitudes, or recognition of the problem.

"Sexism was sorted in the 70s, the trope goes, so any remaining difference is a matter of personal choice," she said. "It's definitely harder to get at the remaining causes of gender imbalance in science, but there is a lot of literature now on unconscious bias and stereotype threat, to name two examples, which really serve to highlight that the playing field remains unlevel, due to historical imbalances, despite a lack of concrete barriers in the present day."

Microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles, one of New Zealand's best-known scientists, believed the main issue was whether men and women really had the same opportunities to reach high-level positions, and whether they had to achieve equivalent standards to reach that level.

"I have often heard it said that women feel they need to work harder than men to be seen to be as accomplished." Dr Wiles, who completed her PhD in 2000, said a squeeze on availability of research funds worldwide over recent times may have added to the issue as well.

It had become much harder for fledgling scientists to survive in the "postdocalypse" - the period between gaining a PhD and becoming a permanent academic staff member - and with the few post-doctoral positions and mid-career fellowships available in New Zealand, the picture here was particularly dire.

"The postdocalypse is where most people are lost from academia and what isn't clear to me is whether disproportionately more women will end up being lost than men, relative to their abilities," she said.

"For example, if women take time out to have children around this time, they will end up having a less competitive CV compared to their male counterparts."

The Prime Minister's chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, believed this to be a problem.

"I think there are two separate issues - one is the increase in women going into the sciences started probably a couple decades ago, and that's still coming through, but the second issue is the way academics assess CVs, and I've got a lot of criticisms of that," he said. "CVs these days are largely based on the number of publications and the impact of publications, but academia doesn't look more broadly at the person's context very well."

Dr Gaston said CVs and the performance of scientists, especially those early in their career, were repetitively assessed each time they applied for funding.

Another factor was that the career path in science was very narrow and restrictive - and time out of the workforce "hurts a lot".

"Simple changes such as changing criteria for awards or fellowships so that they take this into account - having them limited by years in the workforce, for example - can be a good start to coping with this, but the attitudes are slow to change."

Sir Peter acknowledged this. Change would be needed, and soon.

In interviews of women working in the science sector, undertaken by the National Advisory Council on the Employment of Women, pursuing a family at the same time as a research career was a particular issue among retention challenges.

Distinguished Professor Margaret Brimble, a University of Auckland chemist and recipient of New Zealand's highest science honour, the Rutherford Medal, said the problem became more pronounced when women engaged in laboratory work returned to work, only to find the technology had advanced.

"It would be nice to see some fellowships offered to enable women to re-enter the workforce after a career break," she said. "These could be directed at the more technical areas of science. Importantly, child rearing also coincides with the critical time when a woman is trying to establish an independent scientific career."

Many institutions were, however, trying to improve their support for women. The University of Otago, for example, offered a Women in Leadership Programme and a mentoring programme for female academic staff.

The Ministry of Women's Affairs is also working to identify ways to improve the pipeline of women in senior management and leadership roles, in science and across all sectors. Minister Jo Goodhew said organisations could improve these pipelines by supporting flexible work practices, addressing unconscious bias, and assisting career "on-and-off ramps" for women.

In the meantime, Dr Gaston believed New Zealand could look at training science funding panels around unconscious bias.

"On the other hand, I don't believe the playing field will be even until we have 50/50 representation - or until a generation has grown up in that environment - so we do still have an uphill battle."

When would the battle be finally won?

There was no simple answer, Dr Haines said.

In a heavily male-dominated area like physics, even if the percentage of women among undergraduates suddenly rose to 50 per cent, it would still take 10 to 20 years for that to start influencing the percentage of women among Performance-Based Research Fund submitted researchers, she said.

For the change to be fully reflected, it would take another 20 to 40 years.

Otago University biochemist Professor Christine Winterbourn, a ground-breaking free-radical researcher and the first female winner of the Rutherford Medal, saw much cause for optimism.

When she was a Chemistry MSc student in the mid-1960s, there were four women in a class of 25.

Today in her field of biochemistry and cell biology, there would most likely be more women than men.

Professor Winterbourn said there were still a good number of women at the student and more junior levels, and believed it was largely a matter of time and demographics for them to rise up through the ranks.

To her, there was clear evidence this was happening. The two subsequent Rutherford Medal award winners after her were both women - Distinguished Professor Brimble and Distinguished Professor Dame Anne Salmond.

"Also, at the ceremony where I received my medal, they gave out a number of awards to more junior scientists, a majority of whom are women," she said. "These are likely to be in the pool of future leaders."

After the career-family crossroads, a helping hand for others

Judy O'Brien knows well the value of having a good mentor when you need one.

As many young professionals do, she arrived at the difficult crossroads between career and family.

She chose to become a full-time mother to four sons, yet stayed connected with her career at the University of Auckland.

But had it not been for her mentor at the time, Professor Dick Bellamy, she might not have been able to maintain that link.

"Dick always stressed how important it was to maintain contact with my field of science so I could come back to it later," she said.

"He enabled this to happen by coming up with part-time opportunities for me."

Dr O'Brien believes her sons will be her greatest legacy but she has been able to enjoy a fulfilling and distinguished career.

Today, she is development director at the university's School of Biological Sciences.

Her role focuses on recruitment and career support for staff and postgraduate students, but she still lectures in a first-year biology class and is involved in school outreach activities at the university.

She co-ordinates the Rotary National Science and Technology Forum at the school, and is a member of the Liggins Educational Network for Science Advisory board.

She strives to be the mentor she had when she was a young mother, although admits the environment today is much different.

In the 1980s, when she was considering coming back on a permanent part-time basis, people would recoil in shock and horror, asking if she realised how psychologically damaging it would be for her children not to have her home 24/7.

"I think the attitude to childcare is now radically different, and it does allow people to find a solution that works without having a guilt trip laid on them."

Balancing the needs of children and career is still a challenge, and many young researchers have approached her for advice, especially in her former role as the school's academic deputy director.

"I used to get a lot of young females, from undergraduates onwards, coming to me because they knew I had taken time out to have children. They wanted to know how I managed it."

She has watched many of the women she has helped go on to thrive in their careers.

And her support hasn't gone unrecognised: last year, she was awarded the inaugural Miriam Dell Award by the Association for Women in the Sciences.

Dr Kate Angel, who nominated Dr O'Brien for the award, described her mentor as someone "who gets things done ..."

Appeal for female applicants

One of Kiwi science's most honoured figures is calling on young female scientists to apply for new fellowships aimed at New Zealand and Australia.

Entries recently opened for the L'Oreal Australia and New Zealand for Women in Science Fellowships, a progression of the prestigious global L'Oreal Unesco For Women In Science International awards, which have been recognising women in science for 16 years.

University of Auckland chemist and Rutherford medallist Distinguished Professor Margaret Brimble is part of a global network of 2000 women who have been recognised by the global award - including two who later won the Nobel Prize.

Other New Zealand recipients have included Cawthron Institute research scientist Dr Zoe Hilton, who specialises in oyster research, and Christchurch-based University of Otago kidney researcher Dr Suetonia Palmer.

Distinguished Professor Brimble said L'Oreal NZ had worked hard to enable young New Zealand female scientists to be eligible to apply for what was previously an Australian fellowship.

"These fellowships can be used by the awardees for any purpose to help their careers - including childcare."

On the web

Entry details are available online here: