She’s turned the spotlight on glaring equity gaps in our long-male-dominated science sector – and championed researchers in speaking out for the public good.
Now, Professor Nicola Gaston’s efforts as a leader and driver of change have been acknowledged with one of New Zealand’s highest research honours: the Thomson Medal.
The award, annually presented by Royal Society Te Apārangi for transformative leadership, comes nearly a decade after the University of Auckland physicist scrutinised gender bias within our research community, in her book Why Science is Sexist.
These problems endure today, with successive studies showing how women earn less, hold fewer top roles, win fewer awards and face myriad other barriers that come with structural sexism.
One recent analysis estimated female university academics earned around $400,000 less than men over a lifetime; another showed women represented just a third of senior leaders in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce, in both businesses and academia.
Gaston, whose research focuses on computational simulations of nanostructured systems, wrote her 2015 book as she wanted to understand the problem from “first principles”.
“That’s how I’m trained as a scientist. So why is science sexist? Well, science is sexist because we’re people who do science,” she said.
“And unfortunately, we make sexist and other kinds of biased judgements all the time.”
In recent years, our institutions have begun efforts to break down diversity barriers, with measures like targets, more inclusive work arrangements and initiatives tackling unconscious biases in hiring and promotion.
The medal also recognised Gaston’s efforts as co-director of the Victoria University-hosted MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology - and her two-year tenure as president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists.
During that time, she recalled a proposed “code for public engagement” which aimed to guide the country’s scientists on what they could speak out about – but which was seen by many as a gagging move.
Her advocacy ultimately led to the code being transformed into guidelines that seek to support, rather than restrict, scientists publicly discussing matters of public importance.
Her nominator for the medal described Gaston’s “critical wisdom in her choice of battles” and a “tenacious boldness in speaking truth to power”.
A referee agreed: “Professor Gaston is not only an eminent scientist, but she is also a skilful scientific leader who has demonstrated an aptitude for contributing to big-picture issues.”
Jamie Morton is a specialist in science and environmental reporting. He joined the Herald in 2011 and writes about everything from conservation and climate change to natural hazards and new technology.