Five Lessons From Our Women Only Recruitment Round

Our Centre has set a target of 40% women researchers by 2026. We are being held accountable to this target by the Australian Research Council. Our research spans optical physics and engineering, two disciplines where only 20% of employees are women, on average. Now, with more people from a broader range of social classes, gender and cultural identities entering higher education, we need to grab the opportunity to include this diverse range of human potential into careers within our scientific disciplines.

To achieve this, we implemented a women or First Nations-only recruitment round. Here’s what we learned throughout the process.

Lesson One: We are dealing with a systems issue! Look for the opportunity within the system to play the change game. 

Patriarchy and racism are systems that exclude women, people of colour, and those living with disability from accessing the full benefits of the post-industrialised workforce. These systems impact all people, ultimately reducing the diversity of thought and innovation available to our global leadership. In many industries ‘group think’ at the leadership level is common and has been attributed to major events such as the Global Financial Crisis. Group think is a risk for humanity, as we are entering into a time of unpredicted complexity and change. Industry 4.0 is upon us, and its promise of radical innovations contains solutions to many of the world’s impending crises. However, if we do not embrace diversity and create accessible and inclusive workplaces – all the way to the top – we will lose the variety of perspectives required to deliver on this promise.

Universities play a critical role in changing the direction of our future as educators of the workforce and leaders to come, and as a key source of fundamental innovation. In Australia, Australian Research Council Centres of Excellence are major investments in university research and are influencing this change. Our Centre is a team performing fundamental and applied science directly for Industry 4.0, so we feel that we have a special obligation in ensuring diversity in the Science Technology Engineering Maths & Medicine (STEMM) workforce.

In 2020 and 2021 we chose to focus on building our workforce with a gender diversity lens. Studies show that while almost 50 per cent of science graduates in Australia are women, only 17 per cent of senior academic positions at research institutes and universities are occupied by women. We also know that more people than ever before are entering universities to study due to new requirements in the industrial machine. We need a more educated workforce for the complex technologies and societies we are building, hence why we set such ambitious IDEA targets.

Lesson Two: Bake IDEA into a system you have control over and make sure there are resources dedicated to drive implementation.

In TMOS, people are our main asset, so we must start there. But we first had to put in place the framework and resources to implement our mission.

Long before we were awarded the Centre, we built into our plans and budget the position of the TMOS Inclusion Diversity Equity and Access (IDEA) Officer. RMIT University sponsors this position as part of their own mission to drive IDEA values in their organisation. We have also allocated $25,000 per year for IDEA, with oversight from the IDEA Committee, chaired by our IDEA Director, Professor Madhu Bhaskaran of RMIT University. These dedicated resources are critical to success, not only because they are real expertise, focused time, energy, and resources but because they are an important demonstration to our community of the choices we can make. Yes, we have money and skills, and yes, we have chosen to prioritise IDEA. We additionally gave power in our Collaboration Agreement (consortium agreement) to our Governance Manual, which very intentionally contains our Centre IDEA Framework and related polices. We sought advice from other Centres. They made it clear that we had to go hard and strike early to build a diverse team.

During 2020 we worked closely with the RMIT Talent Team to build our draft Recruitment Policy and our draft IDEA Framework to get agreed-upon principles from all the senior investigators and universities on our approach to recruitment.

Lesson three: It is better done than perfect and celebrate the wins! 

We chose to combat the systematic issues in recruitment and take affirmative action by opening a women-only recruitment round. However, upon embarking on a women-only recruitment round we realised that we would have to make some compromises. Our Centre has five different universities (all SAGE Athena Swan members) in four different states and territories, with different legal requirements, policies, and systems. On our side we had our own website, advertising budget, and agreement from everyone – including our human resources and legal teams (Equal Opportunities Act exceptions!) to have a go.

Our first innovation was to attempt to advertise all our Centre postdoctoral researcher positions as women-only, and First Nations Australia only (any gender). Secondly, we wanted to allow academic career interruptions to be accounted for in the selection process. We wanted to recruit nationally and internationally. Importantly, we committed to following our draft recruitment policy (in alignment with university policies), which included mandatory recruitment bias training and diverse panel membership – both on gender, university, and Research Theme.

What we had was 13 women-only positions and 2 any gender due to restrictions in Western Australia. We were not able to get our specific First Nations only appointment at ANU advertised as we could not get appropriate selection committee membership and we could not demonstrate enough commitment to the cause in our area at that time.

Only six positions could be advertised internationally due to the pandemic-induced risk of legal and practical ramifications of job offers that sit in limbo for months. We were not able to get all jobs advertised simultaneously. To get around this, we synchronised the end dates by extending the application time frame for several positions, meaning we were recruiting between September and November.  However, we used our own website and advertising, in addition to our universities, to promote a cohesive ‘women-only’ round for our Centre.

The additional effort continued, as women applicants needed more reassurance to apply, men had to be turned away (many applied anyway), and the long duration of some ads meant that dozens and dozens of conversations were held over the recruitment period.

We attracted 311 applicants across five universities and filled 5 positions with women (37.5% of advertised positions) from this round. We consider this an outstanding achievement, especially in the context of 2020!

Lesson Four: Use what works, steal shamelessly, and make your own work accessible to the community. 

One of the unique initiatives we piloted was the use of Achievement Relative to Opportunity (ARtO) in the women-only recruitment round for the positions advertised at RMIT. ARtO is an evaluative framework in which there is a positive acknowledgment of what an applicant could or has achieved given the opportunities available to them. RMIT has successfully used ARtO for academics; other universities use similar frameworks for academic promotions, as do funding bodies when assessing funding applications. This was the first time the ARtO framework was included in a recruitment round. Taking an existing method to even the playing field and applying it in a new context is an effective means to take a step forward, in a way that works for our institutions. We don’t have to re-invent the wheel!

Several applicants activated ARtO and this allowed us to gain better insight into the candidate’s career journey, including skills and publications, in respect to their life experiences.  Moving countries, moving sectors, parental duties, and medical issues all impact a career in ways that a CV fails to capture. ARtO allowed RMIT applicants to tell their story, providing insightful information during the recruitment process.

From the ARtO experience, our Centre Recruitment Policy was further refined to specify that we consider the whole person as part of our selection process with skills prioritised above publications. This was tested by all selection committees and was quite the mind shift from how academic recruitment usually operates. We have fully developed and approved our IDEA Framework and Recruitment Policy following our women-only recruitment round.

We have since influenced policy outside our Centre, by taking our policy principles and applying them to the draft design of ANU College of Science ‘IDEA Hiring Guidelines.’ Centres act as testbeds for these ideas. Our example of taking RMIT promotions procedures, guides, and recruitment policies from other Centres, adding our own flavour, and sharing it freely back out again highlights this power. However, the secret sauce is having a Centre IDEA Committee whose members are active in their own universities to form the required institutional bridges.

Lesson five: Achieving gender equity targets doesn’t have to be linear, nor about sacrificing one goal for another. Focus on learning to be better players to win the whole game. 

There are several challenges to our gender diversity goals remaining. The first is to continue to recruit women into our team (the outer work), and the second is to make our team a place where women want to stay (the inner work).

On the surface of the first challenge, we appear to be in a position of an ugly compromise between delivering on our scientific objectives and building our diverse workforce. Globally there are enough women, with the right expertise to fill every single postdoctoral position in our Centre! However, Australia has been one of the worlds most locked-down countries globally and, in our disciplines, we are reliant on the international job market. Effectively, the pandemic has reduced the flow of new postdoctoral students and researchers into Australia to a trickle and competition is fierce to obtain women researchers. The competition is excellent for women, which we applaud. We celebrate that the recruitment and the retention of woman are being prioritised in the academic workforce.

For now, we have offered short-term research appointments to our pre-existing students and postdoctoral researchers while they seek opportunities closer to their families overseas. In practice, we have struggled to stick to our gender target in 2021. We must keep proving that it doesn’t have to be research goals versus diversity goals. The big picture objectives of building a diverse workforce for research excellence and the creation of transformative technologies in meta-optics is paramount. Integrity, accountability, and taking steps forward to recruit more women when international travel resumes is a priority for 2022 and 2023.

On the second challenge, we are working on building a more conscious team environment to give women a reason to stay. We do not want to add to the growing burden on women to do more training to be better at their jobs (they already outperform men in many instances!) – there is little evidence this works. We have chosen to focus on our leadership team, first with an experiential SAGE Athena Swan inclusion workshop.

In 2021, we implemented IDEA training for the whole Centre with Symmetra E-Challenge, and with a program of workshops led by facilitator Dr Bree Gorman. Training is a balance between building awareness while not overburdening people, especially with so much online activity in 2020 and 2021. Anecdotally, we can say that there are changes in mindset within the leadership team, and the nature of conversation on diversity is changing to one of curiosity, and how can we do better. We keep growing and learning and ultimately wanting more.

– Dr Mary Gray, (Chief Operations Officer) with contributions from Mr Pitor Nowotnik (IDEA Officer), Prof Madhu Bhaskaran (IDEA Director) and Hana Hoblos (RMIT Administration Officer). 

Download the TMOS IDEA Framework

Download the TMOS Recruitment Policy

About the author/s

Mary Gray

In 2013, Mary Gray graduated with a PhD in the field of human genetics from the University of Otago, New Zealand. That same year Mary moved to Canberra, Australia to become the Manager of the Dementia Australia Research Foundation. From there, Mary moved to The Australian National University (ANU) i ... more

Madhu Bhaskaran

Professor Madhu Bhaskaran FTSE is a multi-award winning electronics engineer and innovator – she has won medals from leading Australian Academies. She co-leads the Functional Materials and Microsystems Research Group at RMIT University which she established in 2010. She is also Chief Investiga ... more

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Category/s: IDEA, Women in STEMM