11 February 2020

Professor Lisa Kewley, an ARC Laureate Fellow based at The Australian National University, and Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics in 3D (ASTRO 3D), is one of the world’s leading astronomers, whose research has focussed on the formation and evolution of star-forming galaxies.

As the most recent recipient of the James Craig Watson Medal from the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC, Professor Kewley has also distinguished herself as the first Australian to be recognised in the 133-year history of the medal.

The discoveries of Professor Kewley’s research team have painted a detailed picture of how galaxies change over a timespan of billions of years, and how the building blocks of life—carbon, oxygen and nitrogen—coalesce inside galaxies. Their work continues to spark ongoing research projects by teams using some of the most high-powered telescopes around the world and in space.

An important additional dimension to Professor Kewley’s contribution to astronomy is the work she has done to improve gender equity in the Australian research community, with initiatives to increase diversity and inclusion. Outlined in a Nature astronomy article which Professor Kewley authored in December 2019, these initiatives seek to support and promote women to senior levels in academia, and address implicit bias in decision-making processes and academic culture. 

“The research community in astronomy is about 300-strong in Australia, and currently supports a further 200 students at the postgraduate level. This community is spread across 14 universities and other research organisations, including centres like ASTRO 3D,” says Professor Kewley.

“While 37% of postgraduates in astronomy students are female, the percentage drops to around 27% in the wider astronomy community, and this reflects how the fraction of women decreases with career age across all of the natural and physical sciences in Australia.”

Professor Kewley is demonstrating at Astro 3D how to spearhead a cultural shift in the Australian astronomy world, with an ambitious goal of 50:50 gender balance at all levels of the Centre by 2021.

“ASTRO 3D has seen its gender balance rise from 30% to 38% in its first two years and is currently on track to reach its 50:50 goal,” says Professor Kewley.

“We have achieved this through a combination of implicit bias training, diversity on hiring committees and shortlists, and an open membership with a gender balance target which encourages more females to become members or apply for advertised positions within the Centre.”

Professor Kewley says that a working environment which is supportive of women and other minorities is crucial, and a range of simple measures can make a large difference.

“These measures include family-friendly Centre meeting hours, childcare at Centre-sponsored conferences, support for young children to travel with their parent to conferences, part-time options for all positions, and a welcoming attitude towards children at the workplace.”

“When I was a student, there was only one woman in Australian astronomy with a permanent position. I thought I would hit a glass ceiling and need to leave the field. Fortunately, Australian astronomy has made tremendous progress since that time.”

In October 2019 the ARC released the Gender and the Research Workforce Report which highlighted that there is still some way to go to achieve gender balance within the Australian research workforce, particularly in the physical sciences. One way that the ARC is changing this balance is through its Research Opportunity and Performance Evidence (ROPE) selection criterion, and extended eligibility timeframes for early to mid-career fellowships and awards. Both mechanisms are designed to recognise the diversity of career pathways and assist re-entry for women researchers who have had career interruptions, including for maternity leave or carer responsibilities.

The ARC’s Australian Laureate Fellowships scheme also includes two targeted fellowships for women to take an ambassadorial role to mentor and promote women in research in both science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and humanities, arts and social science disciplines. Initiatives supported through this scheme include the Science in Australian Gender Equity (SAGE) initiative, intensive mentorship programs and Science 50:50.

Increasing the diversity of Australia’s research workforce is also the focus of a recent ARC/Australian Government consultation. The ARC received over 600 responses to the consultation, which focussed on three initiatives: achieving 50:50 gender parity in applications to the DECRA scheme, increasing women’s participation on the ARC College of Experts to 50 per cent and publishing gender information for each Administering Organisation on the ARC website.

Professor Kewley says that her vision is for a 50:50 gender balance in academia as well as a culture that includes and celebrates diversity in all of its forms. 

“My gender models show that this is achievable in 15 years, with the right initiatives.” 

Images: Professor Lisa Kewley. Credit: ASTRO 3D.

The Milky Way galaxy. Credit: ESO/S. Brunier (CC BY 4.0)