19 August 2019

As highlighted in an ARChway article published for 2019 International Women in Engineering Day, women researchers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields are under-represented both in Australia and globally. The Office of the Chief Scientist in the Australia’s STEM Workforce report, found that in Australia only 16% of STEM qualified people are female. In physics, males made up 82% of all graduates and 86% of doctoral graduates.

To help address this inequity, the ARC Centre of Excellence in Future Low-Energy Electronics Technologies (FLEET) has set itself a goal to achieve 30% representation of women at all levels across FLEET, and has been trailing innovative approaches that would allow them to begin ‘shifting the dial’.

One innovation that has met with success is FLEET’s new women-only Fellowships, which are aimed at early career researchers, and offered in multiple locations, across all fields of study.

This is the leading initiative of its kind for an ARC Centre of Excellence and, as the number of applications were extremely high, it is a good indication that women-only fellowships may be a successful tool for locating talent that is overlooked in more tightly targeted searches.

The following article, which has been prepared by FLEET, is aimed at sharing their experience with other multi-institution research entities that would like to try similar approaches.

How we recruited talented women using Fellowships—a case study from FLEET

Fleet was established as an ARC Centre of Excellence in 2017, with a stated aim to achieve 30% of women researchers across all the Centre’s nodes by 2021. To help enable this, the Centre developed an Equity & Diversity Policy which includes:

  • Equity and Diversity Committee representation on all selection panels
  • Implicit bias awareness ensured for all members of selection panels
  • An aim to produce shortlists with equal representation of women and men. In cases where this is not possible, a justification must be provided to the FLEET Equity & Diversity Committee.

However, after one year of operation, representation of women among FLEET postdoctoral fellows still remained noticeably lower than the 30% goal which we had set out to achieve.

At the end of 2018, 14 fellows had been appointed after searches, of which three (21%) were women, and an additional 17 appointments were made directly, of which four (24%) were women.

FLEET’s Equity & Diversity Committee and Executive Committee identified three significant reasons for the failure to meet our goal:

  • While there are a number of valid reasons for direct appointments instead of external searches, in some cases, these direct appointments can pass along the existing inequity in the system.
  • Targeted searches for positions requiring highly defined skillsets result in small total numbers of applicants (and even smaller numbers of women applicants), and unconscious biases may be more difficult to avoid in these situations. For example, a shortlist containing four men and no women from a total pool of 12 men and three women may be viewed as a statistical fluctuation, while a similar shortlist from a pool of 120 men and 30 women is more likely to be a signal of bias.
  • Targeted searches for positions requiring highly defined skillsets may result in negative self-selection by women applicants who feel they are less than a perfect fit to the selection criteria.

To directly address these challenges, the Equity & Diversity Committee and Executive Committee approved a plan to offer two Women in FLEET Fellowships.

The key features of the Women in FLEET Fellowships are:

  • The Fellowships are funded 50% by FLEET strategic funds, and 50% from the research funds of the Centre node(s) hosting the Fellow, which incentivises the senior investigators who will work with the Fellow but also ensures they are invested in the research.
  • Fellowships target early-career researchers (<5 years past PhD) who self-identify as female and have research interests aligning with any research areas within FLEET, giving applicants the choice to nominate which investigators they want to work with.
  • The Women in Fellowship position was advertised as a 3-year fixed-term appointment at Level A or B depending on experience.
  • The Fellowships therefore allowed for improved flexibility in the location and type of position on offer. This broader search has allowed FLEET to find excellent researchers who may have been missed in previous, narrowly-targeted searches.

Implementation, and negotiating red tape

The recruitment process for the Women in FLEET Fellowships had to comply with equity and recruiting policies across all seven FLEET member universities, which posed significant challenges and required a flexible response.

  • The application process consisted of a centralised expression of interest stage (via FLEET website) followed by (directed) applications to specific nodes that allow “women only” positions to be advertised. Expression of interest calls were placed in maximum-impact, international job-seeking platforms – Nature jobs, IOP Bright recruits, Physics Today jobs, UniJobs, Seek and LinkedIn.
  • Calls for applications were synchronised at the two FLEET nodes that allowed women-only recruitment to go through the respective HR divisions
  • At one university, significant discussion was required to gain agreement for FLEET to advertise the position independently
  • At nodes whose internal guidelines did not allow them to advertise women-only positions, Fellows were directly appointed at FLEET’s administering node, and appointed to the hosting node through honorary appointment arrangements.
  • To meet visa requirements for overseas applicants, the Centre’s administering node recognised the FLEET website as an internal job board.

Implementation of a co-ordinated search across several nodes was not trivial. Given the nature of the positions, a single search involving a single selection committee was ideal. However the search had to satisfy HR requirements at each node that might host a Fellow.

Additionally, some nodes were ineligible due to insufficient research funds to support a Fellow.

This innovative approach to recruitment initially can also be legally challenging due to Australian anti-discrimination laws, although state laws allow the Universities to apply for exemptions (for example, the 1991 ACT Discrimination Act allows for ‘special measures’ including positive actions intended to achieve equality for specific disadvantaged groups).

Outcomes:

The response to our call for applicants exceeded expectations.

  • 68 applications were received (15 previous, more-targeted searches received 28 women applicants in total, an average of less than two women per search).
  • 11 applicants were shortlisted, and interviewed over several weeks.
  • Three Fellowship positions were offered at two nodes. Two were funded 50% by strategic funds, and a third position was offered 100% funded by researcher funds. A further two shorter appointments were also offered due to availability of short-term funding.

The response to the Women in FLEET Fellowship was significantly greater than the combined response of women to advertising for 15 previous, individual, targeted research fellow positions.

Thus it is clear that the Women in FLEET Fellowship strategy reached applicants who were missed by our previous recruitment efforts.

Potential reasons for the increased response include:

  • increased visibility of a Centre-wide search
  • decrease in negative self-selection of applicants that result from stringent selection criteria for a particular skillset
  • increased positive self-selection of women to apply for a women-only position.

Conclusions

Prior to the Fellowship, FLEET’s recruitment efforts drew from the existing pool of researchers in physics, which (along with related fields such as engineering and material science) unfortunately features a relatively low percentage of women.

The response to the Women in FLEET fellowship was significantly greater than the combined response of women to advertising for 15 individual, targeted research fellow positions. The strategy successfully reached applicants who were missed by our previous advertising.

Women-only recruitment effort such as Women in FLEET Fellowship, as part of the recruitment strategy of a large Centre, appears to be a well-justified approach for increasing gender equity in searches at the postdoctoral level, particularly in fields that have low representation of women.

Given the increased response of women applicants to a broad-based search compared to narrowly targeted searches, it is possible that gender-blind, broad-based searches may also result in increased numbers of women applicants. 

We hope that this case study is a useful guide to other research centres and organisations wishing to take a proactive approach to gender equity in STEM research. We hope that others will consider adopting this recruitment strategy, and communicate their findings as we have done.

We also hope that, collectively, such efforts will allow us to increase the percentage of women above the average in our respective research fields, moving towards a more equitable STEM environment in Australia.

Authors:

A/Prof Elena Ostrovskaya is leader of FLEET’s research node at the Australian National University, and Chair of the Centre’s Equity and Diversity Committee

Prof Michael Fuhrer is Director of FLEET

Dr Tich-Lam Nguyen is Chief Operating Officer of FLEET

Errol Hunt is Senior Communications Coordinator at FLEET

FLEET.org.au  |  @FLEETCentre

Women in FLEET Fellows (images from top): Dr Peggy Qi Zhang, UNSW. Credit: Grant Turner.  Dr Semonti Bhattacharyya, Monash University. Credit: Justin Turner. Dr Iolanda di Bernardo, Monash University. Credit: Monash.