Scientists Devanshi Seth and Shweta Tikoo tell how they beat the gender gap in science
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Scientists Devanshi Seth and Shweta Tikoo tell how they beat the gender gap in science

It's hard to imagine Devanshi Seth was ever afraid of anything.

But as a 12-year-old in Delhi, she was terrified of the busy roads choked with chaotic traffic, the swarming crowds and the three buses she had to catch to get to school.

My father told me "just go", she said.

Little did she know her father followed her on his bike, at a discrete distance, all the way to school.

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Scientist Dr Devanshi Seth, in the Centenary Institute.

Scientist Dr Devanshi Seth, in the Centenary Institute.Credit:Janie Barrett

"I had no idea he was right behind me for the first 10 days of school. I still get so overwhelmed thinking about it," she said.

It's the actions of a loving father, protective of his brilliant daughter, but determined to give her the confidence to face adversity.

Sitting in her laboratory at The Centenary Institute in Sydney, decades and a few degrees later, Associate Professor Seth has assailed the intimidating, male-dominated world of medical science.

"I remember when I was a child dreaming about all the boys who used to catcall as I walked along the road. In my dreams I would walk right up to them and kick them," she laughs.

Despite growing up in a society that had little value for professional women, her parents had drummed into her the importance of education and independence.

"They wanted me to continue my education no matter what. They didn't push me to get married and let me go abroad to study. It was almost unheard of at the time," said the principal scientist specialising in molecular genetics and the effects of alcohol on the liver.

During her postgraduate days, she would often walk into a lecture theatre to have 200 sets of male eyes staring back.

"As the only woman I had to tolerate that. I became resilient, said Professor Seth, a principal scientist at the University of Sydney's medical school and RPA.

"I knew I would have to work even harder than any of the men. I worked extremely hard. I grabbed every chance I was given and I kept telling myself, 'I can compete with these men. I'm just as intelligent as they are'.

"But there are many more women out there who are much more talented, but they never get the opportunity to become leaders in their fields."

Scientists Dr Shweta Tikoo, (left) and Dr Devanshi Seth in the Centenary Institute, Camperdown.

Scientists Dr Shweta Tikoo, (left) and Dr Devanshi Seth in the Centenary Institute, Camperdown. Credit:Janie Barrett

An undercurrent of unconscious bias still preferences men for senior positions, and institutional structures hamper female scientists' attempts to reach their potential, she said.

Some 32.5 per cent of management in professional, scientific and technical services were women in 2015-2016, according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.

Of the 1378 grant applications from female scientists to the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) in 2014, just 184 were funded, compared to 369 successful grants to men from a total 2322 applications.

The science industries did not offer the flexibility women needed to meet their research and family commitments, Professor Seth said.

When mothers take maternity leave, their research can be stalled for several months. Travelling to scientific meetings becomes impossible with small children, and daily family responsibilities must be squeezed in between rigid institutional commitments.

It was a problem Professor Seth was mulling over when she heard a handful enterprising young scientists at Centenary Institute had formed the Women in Science group, determined to tackle the gender inequity in their workplace.

"I knew I wanted to be a part of it," Professor Seth said ahead of International Day of Women and Girls in Science on Saturday.

The groundswell of support for the grassroots initiative has grown to become the Institute's Gender Equity Program, with the support of management and cash to back up the vision.

The program includes an early career award of $25,000 annually to provide seed funding for pilot studies, generate preliminary data, travel to conferences.

A second award of $50,000 annually can be used to contribute to childcare costs as well as hiring a research assistant or postdoctoral student to continue research while the scientists is on maternity leave.

"That way when a person comes back from leave the project has moved forward. It's not like you're lagging behind," Professor Seth said.

The award can also be used to help pay for care if a scientist needs to take their child with them to overseas conferences.

Where there was next to no paid leave for new parents, primary caregivers are now entitled to 12 weeks paid maternity leave, and two weeks for their partner.

An increasing number of organisations across an array of professions are adopting similar approaches of the past few years and organisations recognise inherent biases and the benefits of supporting women to reach their potential.

The program's inception coincided with the launch of the NHMRC's gender equity policy to support women in health and medical research.

The Institute also introduced a teleconference tool that allows scientists to patch into meetings from home, and changed meeting times to suit parents struggling to make school and childcare drop-offs and pick-ups.

Scientist Dr Shweta Tikoo, in the Centenary Institute, Camperdown, Sydney.

Scientist Dr Shweta Tikoo, in the Centenary Institute, Camperdown, Sydney. Credit:Janie Barrett

Dr Shweta Tikoo, one of the founding members of the Women in Science group had watched the number of women studying science degrees rising, but she noticed the higher their career progressed the more those numbers petered out.

"I'd see these spectacular women scientists having to drop out. These bottlenecks should not hold them back," said Dr Tikoo, an early career cancer biologist.

"I sincerely feel that women need science but science needs women even more, and the perspective that women bring. No industry can reach its full potential until women reach their full potential."

Another coup for the Women in Science members was increasing the proportion of female speakers at the Institute's seminar series from 18 per cen to 32 per cent over the two years the program has been running.

"We see so few female role models especially in science in Australia so we wanted to do something about that," Dr Tikoo said.

"If women can be successful and reach leadership positions it serves as a great reminder and example for young girls out there that they can do whatever they want to do," she said.

Kate Aubusson is Health Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.

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