Wednesday, 20 June 2012
Parliamentary Friendship Group of Women in Science, Maths and Engineering
This afternoon the member for Kingston and I will be hosting the inaugural function of the Parliamentary Friendship Group of Women in Science, Maths and Engineering. The aim of this friendship group is to promote with parliamentarians and the wider community the role and achievement of women in science, maths and engineering; to connect women in science, maths and engineering; to encourage more women to consider careers in science, maths and engineering; and to draw attention to any barriers for women in pursuing careers in these fields.
It is this last aim of drawing attention to any barriers to pursue careers in science in particular that I wish to speak to today with a specific focus on my constituent Dr Julia Sarant, a senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne. Dr Sarant is currently a chief investigator on grants from the Australian Research Council worth over $1 million. Her primary grant covers the research project and her staff but not her own salary. Dr Sarant therefore requires a federally funded fellowship salary grant. Both the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council offer grants to fund salaries for early, mid and late career researchers. Incredibly, while there are grants that can be easily converted from full time to part time, these grants cannot be applied for by those currently working in a part-time capacity.
The then Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research said to me in a letter written on 9 May 2011 that one such salary grant, the Australian Research Council Future Fellowship, 'enables researchers the flexibility to convert to part time at any time so that Future Fellows can continue to fulfil family and/or carer responsibilities'. This sounds like a sensible policy. However, a Future Fellow cannot possibly convert a fellowship to part time if they cannot apply for it in the first place. Why then does the government profess support for those working part time with family and caring responsibilities yet not allow these researchers to apply for a fellowship that can be converted to part time as soon as they commence?
Given that around 70 per cent of the part-time workforce is made up of women, it is likely that the impact of these grant conditions will largely affect female researchers. It is of particular note that, within the Group of Eight universities, only 34.5 per cent of senior research fellows or higher are women. Further, it was estimated last year by Dr Cathy Foley, then President of Science and Technology Australia, that it will take 150 years to achieve gender equity in Australian science. We should be encouraging more women to consider careers in science, but barriers such as those limiting applications for part-time grants do not assist. Women like Dr Sarant should be able to have a fulfilling career and a family life at the same time.
Australian of the Year Simon McKeon is currently chairing an expert panel undertaking a strategic review of health and medical research. The issue of grants flexibility should be addressed within this review so that there will be a track developed to retain a skilled research workforce which is capable of meeting future challenges and taking future opportunities. (Time expired)