This month the exciting Franklin Women community launched with the mission of contributing to the retention of women working in health sciences.  In this article by Anne Cahill Lambert we discover why such initiatives are important,  even in 2014. 

Anne writes:

I remember my very first meeting as a Council member of the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).  I couldn’t believe I was going to be a part of this very clever group of people:  famous clinicians, important, savvy and just plain brilliant.  I received the agenda in good time and was across my brief.  I had thought about how I was going to work through very complicated papers.

My plan was not to say anything at my first meeting, drawing on those famous bon mots, it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.

… Until a set of papers was tabled itemising a series of research grants that required the Council’s urgent approval before being submitted to the Minister to announce.  Council papers never include identifying information of proposed grant recipients.  Rather, a summary of general details is provided to Council members.

The process of assessing each grant application through grant review panels (GRPs), to Research Committee, to Council is quite long and complicated, but robust.

Back to my first meeting:  as an old hospital manager, I’m very adept at reading pages with numbers.  I was shocked to read that female researchers comprised a very small section of the recommended pie for the series of grants being considered that day.  Shocked.  It was September 2009, not 1955.

So, I spoke; despite my plans not to speak at the first meeting.  I just had to ask why all the big grants were going to blokes (I’m sure they were clever).  There were a few grants to women; not many though, and not much money involved when compared with the men.

It was explained to me that the success rate of the women was not bad considering that not many had applied.  Why, I asked?  And asked, at each meeting between 2009 and 2012.  And asked.  It became tedious for the poor hapless CEO, the marvellous Professor Warwick Anderson.

The short story was that one of the criteria for a big grant was track record.  And it’s darned difficult to have an outstanding and longish track record when you’ve had breaks in your career to have babies or to care for your elderly parents, or …

Happily, I wasn’t the only person asking the hard questions.  Others, including the chair of the Research Committee at the time (the fabulous Professor Jim Best) were also concerned that we weren’t making the most of our entire research community.  Importantly, he was concerned that we were losing those clever women because they just did not cut the mustard as far as the prestigious grants were concerned.

Assessment criteria were amended to ensure that track record reflected a thing called “relative to opportunity”.  So the very clever researchers were required to demonstrate that when they were working, they were productive, which was much fairer.

On one occasion I got to be a community observer on a GRP.  This was in my third and last year on Council.  I got to witness each grant application being assessed on a range of criteria, including track record relative to opportunity.  While I take absolutely no credit for the increase, it was pleasing to see an increase in women getting a bigger cut of the prestigious pie and not just the ordinary pie.

It was terrific to read recently about Professor Anderson’s ultimatum to research institutions.  He quoted current data, viz., that less than 10 per cent of applicants for senior fellowships are women, yet for early career fellowships the number is 50 per cent or more; reflective of society and the health and medical research field generally.

The NHMRC is now updating its policies and requirements for administering institutions – the organisations that employ research applicants – to ensure that those institutions have gender equity policies.  The NHMRC wants to see policies in place that support women so that Australia’s investment in their careers (through the taxpayer) is not lost.  The NHMRC is insistent that policies are not just written; rather, there is evidence that women are being supported to achieve greatness alongside the blokes.

To this end, a Women in Health Science Working Committee was re-established in 2013.  It is advising the Council’s Research Committee on issues that affect the progression, and indeed retention, of women researchers in the health and medical research arena.

These are marvellous initiatives, but when it gets back to the coalface, it seems that any such commitment has flown out the window.

I recently saw a tweet for registration for the Canberra Health Annual Research Meeting.  I clicked on the program, which showed the photos of the five keynote speakers.  The tweet (with my response) and the advertising blurb are shown below.

















I received an emailed response from the organising committee chair.  She and her committee, comprising five other women and one male, wholeheartedly disagreed with my comments.  Their plan was to “provide a good program of research”.  As an aside, I guess I’m to conclude that it wouldn’t have been a good program if equity on the program were included in the criteria.

The conference chair continued:  Women researchers are well represented in the break out sessions.  Rather patronisingly, it was explained to me how long it takes to get keynote speakers to agree to participate – apparently up to 18 months.  For next year’s conference, the aim is to have at least one female and possibly more.

I wrote back, more in fury and less in haste (given that the meeting has begun), that the taxpayer (including moi) expected a better approach than this.  I added that I thought it was shameful that a committee of predominantly women do not believe that equity in participation is important.  I noted that sometimes women are their own worst enemies.  I also noted that for each of the five noble (male) keynote speakers – for whom I have great respect and admiration – I could have found at least two equally fabulous women.  And an aspiration of one female speaker for next year is hardly reassuring.

This is not a one off occasion.  There are eight keynote speakers for the Australasian Research Management Society (ARMS) conference to be held in September 2014.  One of those speakers is a woman.  But not a research scientist.

Apparently in a country of nearly 23 million, it’s difficult to find female health and medical researchers to be keynote speakers.  For the ARMS meeting, there are two international (male) speakers, so it is even more surprising that no women could be found across the globe.

Both these conferences are receiving government funding via universities and other organisations.  Perhaps in future, those organisations might include in their funding agreement that the speakers’ panels be equitable at all levels, including keynote level.  This will start to get messy though.  What are other options?  Perhaps plain old common sense could prevail.

All I am looking for is genuine equity in our health and medical research space.  That includes overseeing the microscopes, being funded to make the big discoveries, to presenting at important meetings such as those described.  This is not tokenism, or even affirmative action.  It is using the taxpayers’ dollars wisely to ensure a truly balanced health and medical research agenda.

The NHMRC seems to be looking for that as well.  I’m cheering them on from the bleachers, while irritating the conference organisers who are just plain silly in a focus that ignores 50 per cent of the population.





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