“Shocking, compelling and heartbreaking, all at once” was how Dr Meredith Nash summed up some revelations in the new Australian documentary THE LEADERSHIP.
“I mean, particularly if you are not familiar with STEMM but are familiar with the notion of gender inequality, and inequality is just magnified in the STEMM fields so the film really gives you a taste of what that looks like”, said Dr Nash.
STEMM is defined as working in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine.
Dr Nash, Associate Professor of Sociology in the School of Social Sciences and Deputy Chair of the Tasmanian University Equity Committee, was among 76 female international scientists on an Antarctic Homeward Bound voyage of discovery and hope, which is the subject of the must-see docu-movie experience.
In a wide-ranging interview, SheSociety asked Dr Nash about the voyage and the film and what both meant to her.
Q: The film provided a surprising outcome and you in particular, early on, are portrayed as not agreeing with the process. Is that how you were feeling at the start?
Dr Nash: That wasn’t my role. My role was to, you know, study the impact of this inaugural Homeward Bound voyage. I think, as the trip unfolded, yeah I mean you know there were some issues that came to light which are revealed in the film, but particularly the notion that we were on this leadership program specifically for women working in STEMM fields and you know there wasn’t much discussion of these sorts of wider structural barriers to women’s progression in STEMM. That caused a lot of consternation amongst people on the ship, including myself.
Q: Obviously the outcome at the end was great and there have been some positive changes to the program since the first voyage?
Dr Nash: I’m not involved with Homeward Bound but from what I have heard, they have made pretty significant changes to the program as a result of the 1st voyage. But I guess some of the issues that were identified in that 1st voyage still linger, particularly in terms of ensuring the diversity of the participants, trying to make sure that they are addressing intersexual oppression now that we are living amidst Black Lives Matter and MeToo. We have had lots of cultural moments happen since 2016 when that first voyage happened so I think the program has really had to evolve positively. But, obviously there’s still work to do and I think they are trying very hard to address some of these issues.
Q: There were some shocking stats that came out including even the fact that men’s bodies are a template for so many scientific studies, that actually appalled me. Is that changing?
Dr Nash: Not really, Caroline Criado Perez has this wonderful book called Invisible Women where she outlines all the data around the multiple ways in which women are still disadvantaged when it comes to healthcare, the development of pharmaceuticals and medicines to engineering, to the ways that urban spaces are designed. The template for the world is based on effectively a white male body. And so, yes, there’s more identification on this like we are talking about it now so that’s something. But it doesn’t mean that practices are quickly following along to change this.
Q: Could you summarise the current work you do in gender inequality and your focus?
Dr Nash: My research broadly explores gender inequalities in everyday life. One of the main areas I love to look at is the issue of work, particularly work as it is experienced by women in STEMM, and so Homeward Bound, is really the start of this program in which I was starting to think about what it is like to be a woman in STEMM. What does leadership look like for women in STEMM and Homeward Bound was one way I explored that question. Subsequently, I have been looking outside of Homeward Bound, specifically what are the experiences of women of colour in STEMM because, for example, women of colour experience the most hostile working environment of any group in STEMM, so whereas the kinds of stories that come out of the film are very much relatable in the sense that women stories are coherent by gender when you start to add something like race or ethnicity then the stories are very different and challenging and women of colour experience STEMM in many different ways to white women and those stories need to be told too so I’ve been focussing on how women of colour are facing these sorts of gendered barriers. But, also I do a lot of work specifically on Antarctic field work, and some of that comes out in the film. So in the last couple of years we have been looking at women’s experiences of Antarctica field work and research. Field work is core to many scientific disciplines but particularly when you look at remote polar environments. Women have a very difficult time, particularly with harassment and gender bias, sexism, all that sort of stuff. So, I do have a very polar-centric part of my work that was very much inspired by Homeward Bound.
Q: When do you think that young women actually realise the inequality that they are about to face? Do you know if there is an age when young girls actually realise the inequality?
Dr Nash: Often, women growing up in this generation don’t really experience discrimination in the way that it is talked about in the film until they get to the workforce. Young women are now growing up in what we call the post-feminist age where feminism is dead because we’re all equal now and everything’s good and women do have many more opportunities then they did 30 years ago. But, the fact is that it’s really the workplace in which women, particularly when they start to have kids, or are applying for jobs, or when they are experiencing their entry into the workforce, that they get their head around the ways in which they are treated differently to men and schooling is not the sight in which girls get that picture.
Q: How do we encourage girls to study and work in STEMM? In school they seem to get captured and then they get lost.
Dr Nash: This is the problem around our messaging in STEMM. The problem is not actually getting girls into STEMM, yes on some level the stats tell us that girls are in less STEMM fields than men, but the thing is, that we have invested quite a lot money and resources in recent decades to get girls interested in STEMM. So, girls are interested in STEMM, they are doing degrees at about the same rate as men in Australia. The problem is actually what happens when women get into the STEMM pipeline. What happens when women get their degree, the problem is that we can’t retain them in a STEMM workforce, so women comprise less than 40% of the STEMM workforce in Australia. The workforce is so toxic and so biased and so discriminatory that women find it impossible to stay there. Part of the problem too is that all STEMM fields aren’t the same. If you think about biology there is an over representation of women in biology, but if you look at engineering, it’s less than 10% of women. There is some difference in terms of what the cultures are like in STEMM and how women fare in each of those fields. You need to focus on women already in the workplace of STEMM.
Q: 40% of women leave their work after their children are born, it’s such a shame.
Dr Nash: The business case of Australia and women in STEMM is really clear. We are losing our talent, we are losing economic activity if we don’t have a diverse STEMM workforce. So, there should be huge financial incentives, huge economic incentives for ensuring that we are keeping women in the STEMM pipeline. It seems like there are some pretty simple solutions, particularly around making sure that women can have families or look after elderly parents easily whilst they are trying to maintain a career. This is not new information.
Q: It’s going to take some sort of body or organisation or association to push for that. How do you find the advocacy to roll out your research?
Dr Nash: I think part of it is advocacy, particularly in Australia, we have a lot of the infrastructure being put in place. Some of it fundamentally comes down to science itself. STEMM disciplines are built on this premise that in order to succeed you just have to be smart. It doesn’t matter who you are, the question of identity doesn’t have to factor into science, when actually seeing the research that I have been doing and that other people have conducted is that it’s fundamentally, we can’t pretend that we are all equal. Everyone has different needs in the workforce. If we don’t accommodate those needs and think about them much more clearly, then people aren’t going to advance their careers at the same rate. Then, forever more we will have 80% of our science leaders in Australia as white straight men.
Q: How do you feel about the western world for women?
Dr Nash: The fact that we are now engaging in these sorts of critical dialogues means that people are more willing to change, and I actually think that with the pandemic, 2020, everything is broken. We are at a cultural breaking point in which, if things don’t change now, then it is going to be hard to change them in the future. But there is a lot of momentum behind these ideas, behind the research, behind the advocacy efforts to really start. Change has to happen now and I think that women in particular, women in STEMM are finding avenues to make their voices heard, and there are these social movements propelling us forward as well. I am not going to say that the future is bleak and terrible. It can feel depressing at times but I think we have experienced the most change in a very short period of time then we ever have in history.
Q: How long do you think your study will go on?
Homeward Bound was just a small piece of my thinking about gendered inequality but I mean for me it really sparked the curiosity about STEMM that I hadn’t really been thinking about up until I got engaged in the program. That was really the gift that I got from that experience.
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