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Women in Science and Innovation

21 August 2020

2020 will go down as year we’d all rather forget about – for Queensland science and innovation, it’s been a year to show how important science is to our society and health.

National Science Week is a time to reflect on where we are with science and innovation in Queensland.

The University of Queensland team working on a COVID-19 vaccine are doing a remarkable job – in fact, the Queensland candidate is being touted by many as one of the front runners in the global race to develop the much-needed vaccine.

But right across the state, our scientists are working on a wide range of research projects – from vaccine support to treatments to diagnostics to producing viral-resistant personal protective equipment – devoted to overcoming this terrible disease. If you’d like to find out more about Queensland research responses to COVID-19, visit the Department of Environment and Science COVID-19 research.

Queensland women are leading the way in roles in science and innovation in the state.

Out of the eight university Vice-Chancellors in Queensland – six are women, including:

  • Professor Deborah Terry at UQ
  • Professor Margaret Sheil at QUT
  • Professor Carolyn Evans at Griffith University
  • Professor Sandra Harding at James Cook University
  • Professor Geraldine Mackenzie at the University of Southern Queensland; and
  • Professor Helen Bartlett at the University of the Sunshine Coast.

We also have women in leadership roles in key research and innovation institutions, including:

  • Professor Fabienne Mackay at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute
  • Professor Lyn Griffiths at QUT’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation
  • Professor Neena Mitter at the Centre for Horticultural Science at the University of Queensland; and
  • Dr Sue Keay who has just taken up the position as the inaugural Chief Executive Office at the newly established Advance Queensland Artificial Intelligence Hub.

Women are doing great things in science across many fields. Other high-profile women in science and innovation include:

  • The doyen of synthetic biology in Queensland Associate Professor Claudia Vickers
  • Dr Catherine Ball who is behind the internationally renowned World of Drones and Robotics Congress
  • Dr Abigail Allwood who is working on NASA’s next mission to Mars
  • Professor Adele Green from the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute who is leading the fight against skin cancer in Australia
  • Queensland Chief Entrepreneur Leanne Kemp; and
  • Deputy Director-General Innovation at the Department of State Development, Tourism and Innovation Dr Sarah Pearson.

On top of that, the state’s three top ministers responsible for science, innovation and STEM education are all women: Innovation Minister Kate Jones, Science Minister Leeanne Enoch and Education Minister Grace Grace.

There is no doubt – more women in top roles create the conditions for greater diversity of thinking across our economy, thereby adding to greater innovation and boosting productivity.

That’s important as we seek to inspire and empower more of our girls and young women to aspire to be leaders in science, technology, entrepreneurship and innovation.

Unfortunately, women are still poorly represented in the STEM workforce in Australia. Less women are qualified in STEM, and a very small percentage of STEM professors are women.

Women earn less and are less likely to be part of startup founding teams.

Balancing work-life responsibilities, workplace culture and a lack of women in senior roles are barriers in the workforce– all of these are undeniably gender-biased.

Family roles have a big impact, especially around career breaks to look after young children and cultural issues around part-time work. In fact, women are far more likely to be in casual employment than men – making women more vulnerable to major economic downturns.

We will never fully realise our innovative capability until we ensure we have a more diverse workforce. If we don’t achieve this, then ultimately, all of us, both men and women will lose out.

And our opportunities are great. If we adopted AI technologies in Australia, we could increase our Gross Domestic Product by $400 billion by 2025. But that depends on also having suitable AI-specific expertise. But the fact is that nearly two-thirds of Australian organisations report they have trouble finding suitable staff to lead AI technology integration.

In addition, we need greater diversity in developing AI solutions as currently these are delivered by, and for, men – and women’s needs must be supported too.

Australia also currently faces a shortage of 3 million workers with digital literacy skills.

These skills shortages are exacerbated by the low participation rate of women in innovation and STEM.

That’s why having women in leadership roles is so important. They are role models for our girls and young women.

These women show younger women and girls that a career in Science, Maths, Engineering and Maths (STEM) has endless possibilities.

It also means, with women in key decision-making roles, we can look to level the playing field.

Advance Queensland has been getting behind our female researchers.

Women make up 40 per cent of the recipients of the latest round of the Advance Queensland Industry Research Fellowships.

Compare this to the fewer than one in four applications for Australian Research Council STEM project grants being led by women, and fewer than one in three applications for National Health and Medical Research Council grants.

In fact, measures brought by the Queensland Government to support more women to apply for the research grants program has seen an increase in the proportion of female recipients from 36 per cent in 2016 to 49 per cent in 2020.

The government changed the funding rules to support half-time fellowships and also allowed researchers to be employed in a half-time capacity – helping women achieve a better work-life balance.

The Queensland Government is also supporting women in research and innovation through the Advance Queensland Female Founders and Women’s Research Assistance Programs.

These programs are all about providing the right resources, tools and support to give women a leg-up in their workplace or university.

Queensland’s STEM education strategy also has as one of its primary goals to lift the participation rate of girls studying STEM at state schools.

So, let’s thank all STEM professionals for their role in our society during National Science Week, and in particular celebrate our leading women who are showing the way for generations to come.