Expert advice: fix the ‘leaky pipeline’ for women in science

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Picture by Lesley Martin 08 March 2016 International Women's Day 2016: Pledge for Parity. Heriot Watt University Edinburgh. © Lesley Martin 2016 t: 07836745264 e:

© Lesley Martin 2016

Half of Australia’s science university students are women. Why are only 21 per cent of the professors teaching them women?

40 Australian universities and other research organisations are signed up and working towards a bronze award level of recognition for supporting women in science. What can they learn from the UK’s ten-year experience?

UK chemist Professor Tom Welton is in Australia to share how his team at the Imperial College London Chemistry Department achieved a gold Athena Swan Award for promoting gender equality.

“Australia and the UK both suffer from a ‘leaky pipeline’, with a disproportionate number of women leaving academia at all career stages. This loss of female talent is a loss for science and broader society,” says Professor Welton. 

Professor Welton wants to change this, and has instituted a series of changes, such as:

  • supporting those who have taken parental leave to get their research back up to speed,
  • making procedures such as promotions and decision-making more transparent,
  • establishing recruitment committees to proactively find excellent female and male candidates and encourage them to apply for advertised positions, rather than bemoaning the lack of female applicants.

Professor Welton has been asked if promoting women in science has been a distraction from the Chemistry Department’s core work. His firm answer is that there’s a strong business case, not just a moral case, for supporting women in science.

“We’re now performing better on many research metrics and in international league tables, we’re an employer of choice, and our research income has increased dramatically.”

“It turns out that good management for diversity is simply good management.”

As an openly gay scientist, Professor Welton has a personal understanding of the importance of inclusive workplaces. He says that he was fortunate as a PhD student to work with people who were “frankly more interested in my latest results in the lab.”

“Building an inclusive culture means doing whatever it takes to allow people to do their best work and recognise it, removing any disadvantage of gender, race, disability, religion, sexual identity or socioeconomic background. People are people, not categories. You can’t be selectively inclusive.”

Professor Welton is touring Australia to deliver a series of public lectures and practical workshops as part of Science in Australia Gender Equity’s (SAGE) efforts to encourage, enable and empower their members to address inequity and achieve Athena SWAN accreditation, starting with bronze, but ultimately going for gold.

SAGE is a partnership between the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, adapting the UK Athena SWAN framework to suit Australia’s conditions and equality challenges, and supported by funding from the Australian Government.

For full details of Professor Tom Welton’s Australian tour, visit:

For more information about the SAGE initiative, visit:

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Tom Welton biography

Professor Tom Welton, Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Imperial College London and the world’s first Professor of Sustainable Chemistry, began his academic career with a B.Sc. at the University of Sussex followed by a D.Phil., in the Chemistry and Spectroscopy of Ionic Liquids.

After research positions at the University of Sussex and the University of Exeter he joined the Chemistry Department at Imperial College London in 1993 as a Lloyd’s of London Tercentenary Fellow. In 2002 he was awarded a Readership in Catalysis and undertook the role of Director of Undergraduate Studies in Chemistry.  In 2004 he was promoted to Professor in Sustainable Chemistry.  He was Head of the Chemistry Department from August 2007 to December 2014, during which time the Department achieved an Athena Swan Gold Award. He became Dean of the Faculty in January 2015.

Tom uses solvents to improve chemical processes. He has worked with ionic liquids throughout his career, in order to develop sustainable solvent technologies. The central academic aim of his research is to understand the role that the immediate chemical environments in which reacting species find themselves influence the reaction process. He also aims to use this understanding to provide more effective chemical processes by the matching of the reaction with its optimum solvent environment.

Tom is the author of over 100 papers, primarily on the structures and chemistry of ionic liquids and their solutes. He was the 2007 RSC Christopher Ingold Lecturer, the 2012 RSC Thomas Graham Lecturer, and the 2011 DFG Paul Walden Lecturer. He is an Honorary Member of the Chemical Society of Ethiopia.

About SAGE & Athena SWAN

Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) is an initiative of the Australian Academy of Science in partnership with the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering. It addresses gender equity in the science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) sector.

The program has been adapted from the Athena SWAN Charter, established in the UK in 2005, an accreditation and improvement program for higher education and research organisations focusing on gender and other forms of inequality. The Athena Swan Charter is proving highly successful in transforming gender equity action to improve the promotion and retention of women and gender minorities within STEMM.

Women in science: Australian statistics

  • Bachelor degree: there are 369,123 total students studying in a STEMM Bachelor degree (includes Medical Sciences and Health).
    • 180,382 are women (48.9%); and 188,741 men (51.1%)
  • Senior academics: there is a total of 4,007 senior professors in STEMM:
    • 825 are women (20.6%); and 3,182 are men (79.4%)

Source: Higher Education Research Data, 2014.

For more related statistics, visit