By Robyn Molloy

Curtin University’s Institute of Radio Astronomy (CIRA) has been recognised nationally for its efforts to eliminate gender bias and drive inclusivity.

It received a Silver Pleiades Award from the Astronomical Society of Australia last month, which CIRA early career researcher Dr Gemma Anderson says recognises the institute’s ongoing monitoring and commitment to improving the working environment over the last two years.

Key improvements include:  providing parenting facilities, implementing better hiring processes to attract more women and holding cultural awareness training sessions.

 “We used our own internal funding to get baby change tables, to upgrade the sick room so that it can be used by breastfeeding and breast pumping mums,” she says.

“Women who are breast pumping need those private facilities. There was a woman who was doing it locked in the shower, that’s uncomfortable and unhygienic.

“Very occasionally people might need to bring their kids in, such as when they are on maternity leave and have to go to a meeting or sometimes the babysitter cancels and you haven’t got a choice. It is obviously rarely used but they are there if they are necessary.

“What’s interesting is that Curtin University through the Athena SWAN process hold our institute up as an example to the rest of the university and they have said ‘look, this institute has not only put in these facilities but they have used their own money to do it’. There’s now been a big push for more parenting facilities around the university.”

Improving job application processes included reviewing how advertisements were worded and providing cheat sheets of Curtin policies and guides to help people make better decisions on how to increase the number of women at the institute.

“As a result of that, the number of female hires went from around 20 per cent to around 60 per cent so it was a huge swing in women,” Anderson says.

“The number of women who applied for the positions grew, the number shortlisted grew and more women were then appointed a position. Out of the seven new hires, four were women but that was a significant change from the previous intake.

“One of the biggest things we did was to include a clear inclusivity statement at the end of the application and that’s becoming quite a common thing for astronomy.”

Anderson says job advertisements often encourage women and minorities to apply but the institute now goes a step further to say it is an inclusive environment that takes into account people’s various circumstances including families. 

“It’s about going above and beyond and saying we do make these considerations based on your personal circumstances, and women when they have applied for jobs have said they really appreciated this additional text at the end of the application,” she says.

Anderson says the institute, which has about 60 staff and students, was also the first to internally fund inclusivity training around unconscious bias, driven by the fact that more than 50 per cent of students and scientists are from overseas.  

With a gender mix of 30 per cent women to 70 per cent men, Anderson says it is consistent with the Astronomical Society of Australia, which is higher than other STEM areas such as physics and engineering.

While the improvements have had an impact on increasing the number of women applying to the institute Anderson says there is still a long way to go to addressing the “leaky pipeline” – where more women drop out of academia as they move up the ranks, leaving up to 90 per cent men at the top level in the science vocation. 

Curtin University Vice-Chancellor Professor Deborah Terry said the university had developed the 2018-2021 Curtin Athena SWAN Action Plan to retain and support female academics in the STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine) disciplines.

“The Silver Pleiades Award is recognition of Curtin’s determination to increase the diversity of the University’s academic workforce, advance the careers of female academics in the STEMM disciplines, and to increase the number of female academics in leadership positions,” she says.

Curtin university is a proud CCIWA Member. For more information about membership visit cciwa.com.