There are plenty of women going into science. And once they are there, they stop.

There are plenty of women going into science. And once they are there, they stop. Photo: Louie Douvis

The CSIRO is in enough trouble with its funding without me piling on further criticism. But it must have been disheartening to read Monday's compelling dissection of the role of women in the national science agency.

Judy Eastham, who used to work at CSIRO, wrote it would take 130 years for women to achieve equality in the organisation if present trends continue.

So, it's depressing for women who work at CSIRO. But the news is bad everywhere. We've spent 20 years working on the number of girls choosing STEM careers (science, technology, engineering, medicine) and we've succeeded.

There are plenty of women undergraduates going in to those fields. And once they are there, they stop. They barely get a pay rise. They don't get promoted. They don't become professor. Then they get the shits and move jobs, which undoes the excellent work of feminists in these industries.

And noone knows exactly why. 

Jenny Martin wants the answer. Martin is a professor at the University of Queensland, is an ARC Laureate Fellow, and has no idea why it turned out differently for her than it does for others with her abilities. That's one of the reasons she is committed to the work of the Australian Academy of Science and its project, Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE). She, too, refuses to focus on CSIRO.

"It's the same everywhere," she says. I ask her why she succeeded where so many other women don't.

"That's a good question and I often ask myself that, trying to work that out,"  she replies.

This is a question women ask themselves all the time – which makes us think that the question can be answered by us, when it can only really be answered by the institutions and the society that shapes them.

Is it that we weren't pushy enough? Weren't clever enough? Childless? Partnerless? Martin says that from her own personal experience, she knows that partner choice is critical.

"Partners who aren't supportive of a woman's career make it even more difficult for that woman to achieve success and take on leadership  roles. In my experience, it's far better to have no partner than a partner who doesn't support equality or pull their weight at home. While women need to lean in at work, their partners need to lean in at home if we are going to achieve gender equality." 

Her husband - whose job comes with even more line management responsibility than she has - is utterly supportive. The two of them share domestic duties, and ironing is banned altogether.

While partner choice is important, Martin is much more interested in what can be done at an institutional level. And that's the mystery that Sharon Bell is trying to solve. Bell has worked on research in this area for years and the deputy vice-chancellor at Charles Darwin University says the answer is no closer. It's not just about participation in the field. The fact is, women are well-represented in biological sciences but still don't get promoted. So, they are segregated by the kind of science and segregated by the status and position.

"The depressing part of this is that the CSIRO is not alone," Bell says.  What's worse is that when women advocate on behalf of other women, their efforts are viewed with suspicion.

"It's much easier for a male CEO to champion the cause for women and be applauded for it . . . while it's wonderful and essential to have women CEOs, the gender agenda is much more difficult for them to prosecute."

Eastham, who wrote in Monday's Canberra Times, said she thought the culture of workplaces is very difficult to make consistent. It's one thing for a workplace to say it has flexible work practices and another for the managers to say to employees that using that flexibility means a lack of commitment to the organisation.

"That makes it hard for men and women alike," she said.

And the fact is, men are not yet asking for flexibility at the same rate that women do. And here's the gap. We encourage women to go into these fields with terrific outreach programs such as the one run by Nicky Ringland, the Girls' Programming Network. She's out there letting young women know about the joys of coding and the infinite possibilities that work offers. She's still having trouble getting schools to teach computer science (and she's working on all-girl schools where it's even harder for young women to access the curriculum which might open up these possibilities).

But once we get them there, what are we offering? Are we offering a lifetime of being the most junior person in the department? A job where flexibility is not possible? A job where the best opportunities go the blokes?

Cathy Foley, the deputy director and science director of the manufacturing flagship of CSIRO, cites research from 2012 where more than 100 people were asked to rate identical applications but with male and female names attributed. The male name scored 25 per cent higher for competence and hire-ability.

She also thinks CSIRO's most recent changes may well have been a response to the tremendous pressures placed on the organisation, but says that it has now set targets of 20 per cent.

"They've never done that before," she says.

Of course, that's not much - but it's better than nothing.

Twitter @jennaprice or email jenna_p@bigpond.net.au