Launch of Women in Coastal Geoscience and Engineering

A reflection by Shari Gallop, Ana Vila-Concejo and Sarah Hamylton

The Women in Coastal Geoscience and Engineering (WICGE) network was officially launched on 8th March 2016 at the International Coastal Symposium in Sydney, Australia. We were pleased to have a great turnout of around 70 people, with a good mix of men and women which was great to see. The only downside to such attendance was that we had to share the wine and canapés 🙂

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Prof. Julie Cairney (left) and Dr Shari Gallop (right)

The launch was kicked off with a presentation by Professor Julie Cairney from the School of Aerospace, Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering, University of Sydney. Julie presented the ‘scissor graph’ that clearly demonstrates the increasing gender disparity in the natural and physical sciences. Julie also discussed how this gender bias in STEM subjects starts very young. For example, if a 6 year old is asked to draw a ‘scientist’, they will often draw a [male] Einstein-like character.

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Academic profiles by gender; natural and physical sciences 2007. Source: DEEWR Selected Higher Education Student Statistics 2007; Department of Education, Science and Training, Special Report, FTE Staff in AOU Groups, 2007.

This was followed by a panel discussion including Professor Robin Davidson-Arnott from the University of Guelph (Canada), Dr Luciana Esteves, Bournemouth University (UK), and Dr Shari Gallop, Macquarie University (Australia). It was great to hear Robin’s reflection on a positive story of how gender balance has been achieved in his department. Julie, Luciana and Shari all said that they did not realise that gender inequality existed in their respective disciplines right away. Maybe this is partly because of the ‘scissor graph’, which suggests that at early career stages, there tends to be a fairly even mix of males to female students. Another contributing factor might just be getting used to gender imbalance, or thinking ‘oh it’s just me that’s the problem’. Many interesting discussions took place during the launch along the vein of ‘I thought it was just me…’. These included being ignored by new colleagues and being brushed over in favour of male colleagues when someone is looking for an ‘expert’.

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WICGE launch panel Prof. Robin Davidson-Arnott, Dr Luciana Esteves, Dr Shari Gallop and Prof. Julie Cairney.

During the panel discussion, it was agreed that career interruptions such as due to caring responsibilities can be a turning point where many women find it very difficult to sustain (particularly an academic) career. Although there has been progress made e.g., major grant funding bodies accounting or career interruptions, there is no magic answer and it can be very difficult.

There were many interesting discussions, both in the public forum and while enjoying some wine and canapés. A point that was made a few times was that women do not seem to be happy ever. It doesn’t matter how many programmes employers put in place, women always find a point to complain. In response to this point, it was thought that that if those employer programmes and policies were really working, WICGE would not be necessary.

It is early days for WICGE, but we hope that we can take some constructive, practical steps toward gender equality in coastal science. And we will be the happiest people in the world the day that WICGE is no longer necessary!