A collage of portraits of health researchers (all women). Medical research institutes are working hard to prioritise gender equity initiatives. Image credit: Telethon Kids Institute.

Director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI), Professor Doug Hilton FAA FTSE has called for collective action and ongoing momentum towards gender equity and diversity in Australia’s medical research sector, despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Professor Hilton made the comments during the SAGE National Call to Action webinar, which took place on 22 May and featured representatives from three medical research institutes (MRIs).

“All institutions, no matter their size, can follow the principles of SAGE,” said Professor Hilton.

One of the key diversity and inclusion targets set by WEHI as part of its SAGE Athena Swan Action Plan aims for more women in leadership roles. WEHI have seen positive shifts in women’s representation, with 50% of Laboratory Head and 40% of Division Head roles now held by women.

Professor Hilton said that ongoing action to ensure gender equity is essential. “Sustainable changes to women in senior leadership positions requires long-term investment. Personal and institutional level leadership is vital, but collective action is the solution.”

Professor Hilton is a co-founder of the SAGE initiative and was a member of the SAGE Expert Advisory Group. WEHI received its Athena Swan Bronze Award in December 2018.

Watch the National Call to Action webinar hosted by SAGE on 22 May 2020:

Professor Jonathan Carapetis AM—Director of the Telethon Kids Institute (TKI) and President of the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes (AAMRI)—shared the findings of a TKI staff survey on gender equity, including internal salary support, flexibility for carers and initiatives such as the Emerging Leaders Program. TKI-specific challenges include a female-dominant workforce (>80%) and overrepresentation of women in entry level positions.

According to the survey, over 80% of the TKI workforce feel that they have sufficient flexibility regarding caring responsibilities. Professor Carapetis highlighted current Action Plan initiatives, which include closing the gender gap in internal funding by 50% by the end of 2022. TKI received its Athena Swan Bronze award in February 2020.

Presenters shared how they are mapping gender equity progress through data collection, a key theme of the webinar.

“It can be challenging as an MRI to capture data,” said Ms Amanda McIlroy, Chief Operating Officer of the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI), which received its Athena Swan Bronze award in September 2019.

“It is often easier for universities, but SAGE was very helpful for the process,” said Ms McIIroy.

Dr Cath Latham, Policy and Projects Manager at AAMRI, discussed how the association is carrying out data collection to understand trends in the medical research sector.

“Everyone is on a different stage of their gender diversity journey,” said Dr Latham. “We’re doing extensive work on how we can assist MRIs in their journey.”

Presenters and participants also discussed the challenges related to COVID-19, including reactivation plans as shutdowns and restrictions ease, as well as securing funding over the coming years.

Dr Wafa El-Adhami, SAGE Executive Director, drew attention to the Rapid Research Information Forum reports that show the impacts of the pandemic on the STEMM research workforce, and especially so for the careers of women in STEMM.

Professor Carapetis said that keeping diversity and inclusion in the foreground is particularly important moving forward. “After COVID-19, we need to make sure we’re not losing traction with our female research workforce. In our gender equity committees and boards, we need to report on how this is affecting the gender diversity of our MRIs. We need to be applying a gender diversity lens to decisions moving forwards.”

Professor Hilton highlighted the benefits that joining SAGE provides. “SAGE members have the added benefit from drawing on the collective wisdom of the sector through exclusive member networks, where they can quickly share sector-specific learnings and gender equity solutions from each other. And in this time of crisis, this collaborative spirit is more vital than ever.”

Dr El-Adhami also spoke about the assistance that SAGE will provide to subscribers. “We’re making sure we’ll keep the momentum that we’ve developed over the last few years. The more we strengthen networks to collaborate and share opportunities, the better all of us will be placed to move forward.”

Download slides from the webinar