Women in Science - How do we help?

Women in Science - How do we help?

Cure Cancer Australia funds early-career researchers across all cancers, purely on the basis of excellence. So why are we funding more and more women?

Dr Lisa Mielke, a 2017 Cure Cancer Australia grant recipient.

Dr Lisa Mielke, a 2017 Cure Cancer Australia grant recipient.

Some might cheekily suggest it is because the women are cleverer than the men, but the truth is that the research environment is slowly becoming more ‘woman-friendly’.

In the 50 years since Cure Cancer Australia started we have funded 483 grants; 177 awarded to women (37%). Since 2000, 135 of the 245 grants have been given to women (55%). In the past 5 years, 47 of our 76 researchers have been women (62%). There is no doubt there is a trend here: we just have to hope these brilliant women are able to stay in science.

The research institutes have helped by being more flexible with return to work after maternity leave, and with child care opportunities. Things are different from the experience shared with us by Professor Pamela Russell AM at the Researcher Showcase in May. When Pamela started in science she was paid half the salary of men at the same stage, simply because she was a woman. When she returned to work after having her family, NHMRC policy required that she had to go back to the bottom rung and start again as a research assistant! Things are better now.

While there are role models at the top tiers of science combating gender bias, like our star alumni Prof Pamela Russell AM, Prof Robyn Ward and Prof Carolyn Mountford, the jump from PhD student to lead researcher may at first seem insurmountable for many women.

An article in The Conversation written by young women scientists from University of Wollongong (including Kara Perrow, grant 2014, solely supported by The Can Too Foundation) points out that students considering a career in science are told that competition for research funding is fierce, giving rise to short-term contracts and job insecurity. This sees scientists working overtime and on weekends, and that makes it harder to succeed if you are a female scientist and mother.

Dr Kara Perrow, a 2014 Grant recipient - solely supported by The Can Too Foundation.

Dr Kara Perrow, a 2014 Grant recipient - solely supported by The Can Too Foundation.

This outlook can leave students questioning their future in science. But there is a way to make a successful and rewarding career in science as demonstrated by the stories of Perrow and her colleagues, and the other 46 women who have received our funding in the past 5 years.

Gender equity remains a particularly sticky issue for science. The choice to raise a family may be judged as a disruption to research output when scientists are assessed for funding, although these days scientists do have an opportunity to explain that disruption and have it considered. Child-bearing time is the point where many women choose to leave academic careers. The global nature of science also necessitates regular long-distance travel, which is difficult for those with family responsibilities.

Perrow advises that a strong local support network can make the task of balancing young children and the demands of research more manageable. If you are fortunate to have one, family networks can offer assistance when travel or extended work hours are called for. Similarly, a supportive, collegiate ethos between co-workers can encourage and boost young postdocs.

It is widely recognised that networking is fundamental to building a career in science, and early-career researchers should do their best to find effective mentors. Cure Cancer Australia endorses these ideas. To this end, we have instituted our annual Research Symposium which provides an environment where our current grant recipients can meet one another and develop opportunities for collaboration. We have also launched a mentoring program and our experienced alumni are providing advice to our early-career researchers.

Our 2017 grant recipients with Professor Alan Mackay-Sim (2017 Australian of the year) at our researcher showcase in May.

Our 2017 grant recipients with Professor Alan Mackay-Sim (2017 Australian of the year) at our researcher showcase in May.

The greatest support we can give these early-career researchers is funding. Our grant system offers one-year grants to early-career researchers in their first three years after PhD or medical degree. They are eligible for two-year grants for the next four years. The researchers who are able to attract two (or even three) of our grants take themselves a long way towards greater future job security. In decisions made in conjunction with Cancer Australia, we gladly permit young mothers to take maternity leave during their grant periods, or, if appropriate, permit them to supervise their work while strictly speaking they are on leave.

With more funding available we could offer more two-year grants and help these early-career researchers even more.

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