CSIRO chief executive Dr Megan Clark.

CSIRO chief executive Dr Megan Clark. Photo: Jamila Toderas

Following the highs of this past week’s National Science Week, it’s timely to spotlight the under-representation of women in CSIRO, our national science research organisation.

CSIRO’s latest annual report released in 2013 indicates that women represent 40 per cent of employees, but only 12 per cent of technical services roles and 24 per cent of research scientists are female. In contrast, women are over-represented in more poorly-paid, traditionally female roles such as administrative support which is 76 per cent female. At higher levels of the hierarchy, the situation for women is even bleaker, with only 11 per cent of research management roles held by women. This statistic cannot be explained by a dearth of female talent, since women have comprised more than 11 per cent of the research scientist talent pool since 1998, and more than 20 per cent since 2005. In an equal opportunity environment, the representation of women in research management roles should reflect the pool of researchers it draws from.

Progress towards equity in CSIRO is difficult to track from annual reports which don’t reveal gender trends or past figures. The scant gender information provided stands in stark contrast to the detail on other statistics such as trends in publications, citations and social media presence. One can’t help but question the priority and values of an organisation which chooses to showcase monthly data on “Facebook likes” and “Twitter followers”, but fails to report data showing progress towards equity, a basic human right.

If you crunch the numbers from successive annual reports the figures are disheartening, revealing that the proportion of female research scientists actually decreased in 2012-13 compared with the previous year.  

In January 2009, women in CSIRO celebrated the appointment of Dr Megan Clark, the organisation’s first female CEO, anticipating that under her leadership the portals to the old boys club would be broken open. The former CEO, Dr Geoff Garrett, increased women’s representation as research scientists by six per cent during his term. But data in annual reports show that women’s representation in the role has increased by only one per cent over the 5 years since Dr Clark took the helm. At this glacial rate of progress, the number of women Research Scientists in the organisation won’t reach parity with men for more than a century. Several generations of female scientists will continue to be disadvantaged.

Restructuring of CSIRO in July this year afforded a golden opportunity to increase the visibility of women at the top, a key strategy in improving gender balance.  Perhaps predictably, the top jobs were predominantly awarded to men. The July 2014 organisational chart on the CSIRO website reveals that only one of the five executive director, and one of the 13 director positions were given to women. Several talented and impressive women who formerly occupied equivalent leadership roles such as chiefs and flagship directors were “overlooked”. 

So what are the solutions? CSIRO has had a suite of excellent policies and plans in place to support equal opportunity for many years. Clearly these haven’t been effective in facilitating significant change. Studies on traditionally male workplaces point to organisational culture as a key factor disadvantaging women, and one of the most problematic to fix because of its hidden nature. Rumours of bullying, often a particular issue for women, have proliferated under the current leadership. These haven’t been silenced by an “independent” investigation commissioned and paid for by CSIRO, which found implausibly low levels of misconduct. Some executives and leaders allow discriminatory practices to persist, denying the problem and ignoring independent reports that document evidence of direct and systemic discrimination in parts of the organisation.

Leaders are instrumental in shaping organisational culture, and commitment from the top is critical to the success of any cultural change initiative. Dr Clark has been notably silent on the gender problem, preferring instead to focus on the broader issue of diversity. Her approach contrasts strongly to that of the “Male Champions of Change”, a group of male CEOs and Chairs who actively champion gender equity. Their key message is that a specific focus on gender is essential. Thus it will fall to the new CEO, appointed at completion of Dr Clark’s term at the end of 2014, to take responsibility for redressing the inequity that has been allowed to persist in the organisation.

CSIRO needs to set and commit to realistic targets for women’s participation. It should be accountable for progress towards these targets by transparent reporting to the Australian public. At the risk of alienating purist feminists, I challenge CSIRO to “man up” to the problem.  

Judy Eastham is a consultant and researcher investigating gender equity in the Australian workplace. She formerly worked as a scientist in industry, research and academic institutions. judy.eastham@gmail.com