Conversations with 4 Women Leaders in Australian Science

By Dr. Cristina Martínez-Lombilla

Inspired by the “Women in Leadership” lecture from the UNSW Inclusive Science Series, I decided to chat with four great women leaders in science. They talked about what it is like being a top science leader in Australia and their thoughts on the future of women in science. The best part of this conversation was that I got to know them more. This post is all about our fruitful conversation.

(From left to right) Professor Sarah Brough is an astronomer and the former Acting Co-Associate Dean of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) in UNSW’s Faculty of Science and former chair of the Astronomical Society of Australia’s Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity in Astronomy Chapter
Professor Lisa Kewley is an Australian Research Council (ARC) Laureate Fellow at ANU and Director of the ARC ASTRO 3D Centre of Excellence.
Professor Fiona Stapleton is a Scientia Professor at the School of Optometry and Vision Science, UNSW, the former Associate Dean, Enterprise in the Faculty of Science, and the UNSW Athena Swan Academic Lead.
Associate Professor Lisa Williams is a social psychologist researcher and the Co-Associate Dean of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in UNSW Science.

A typical day in the life

As leading women in science, they all have busy workloads. Their daily schedules are tight and include international meetings at awkward hours of the day, as well as family duties. A/Prof. Lisa Williams, as mother of a toddler, worked flexible hours until early 2022, when she started sending her son to daycare. She would then use her afternoons for meetings, supervising research students, reviewing papers, teaching and activities associated with her role as co-Associate Dean of EDI in the UNSW Faculty of Science. This flexibility meant she often worked evenings. The other leaders have older children and practice what Prof. Lisa Kewley called ‘extreme time management’ to get their things done. They save one day of the week for their own research and then split the rest of the days into ‘back-to-back meeting hours’, and ‘catch-up time’ for reading, writing, reviewing, or supervising postdocs and students. Again, they work flexibly, using time early in the morning or in the evening for these tasks. Prof. Sarah Brough described how the pandemic affected her usual time management. She had many domestic and international trips and used that time for reading. During the pandemic, she had to adjust to losing that productive time in addition to homeschooling her primary-school age son. This made her struggle to find time for her own research.

Plans to address the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on academic women

Prof. Fiona Stapleton explained that there are studies looking at the impact of the pandemic on professional and academic staff across institutions in Australia, comparing the situation internationally such as in Asia-Pacific and across the globe. At UNSW, a follow-up study is currently underway exploring the longer-term impact of the pandemic on work practice. When talking about the results of these studies, the four women agreed that flexible work as the norm is the most positive outcome of the pandemic. On the other hand, on-campus work is key for engaging new staff and students who have faced a very hard and lonely situation during the pandemic, particularly when starting work or study from overseas. In that regard, A/Prof. Lisa Williams added that UNSW has implemented a new Flexible Work Policy and several schemes to support staff whose research and teaching activities have been negatively impacted by the pandemic broadly and lockdowns specifically.

Prof. Lisa Kewley has been working on research regarding the number of publications during the pandemic and their resulting impact on promotion and recruitment process, as well as the possible future impact on the gender gap.  Although the total number of publications during the pandemic (from early 2020 up to October 2021) went up, the number of publications lead by women went down. This could potentially affect promotion applications and outcomes in the following years.

They all were concerned by the low number of academic promotions in general, which has also slowed down further since the pandemic. Another general worry is that the consequences of the pandemic on academia in the long term are yet to be seen.

The importance of diverse role models

According to a study on gender balance in the field of Australian astronomy led by Prof. Lisa Kewley, when more women are in leadership roles, more female early career researchers and students join their groups and continue in their careers. This happens due to the combination of 3 factors. First is the available options, as they tend to work with people they feel more comfortable with and whose life experiences they can relate to. Second, more women apply for the position when the person advertising the role is a woman. And finally, the hiring process is a pivotal step in the pathway to establishing a career as it has been shown that, when hiring committees have more women, they are more likely to hire women.

How should one respond to statements like ”Positive hiring policies promote access for under-qualified women” or “Women scientists have not been important throughout history”?

All of the women leaders I spoke to, agreed that the best tactic, after taking a deep breath, is to just assert that this is not true. In the past, women have left academia at larger rates than men. Thus, those who remain may have had to overcome many difficulties, which make them very good at their job and potentially better than similarly qualified men. This is clearly reflected when looking at the list of candidates for high academic positions. The proportion of applicants is often around 3 women out of 10. However, these women are not the average – they have outstanding qualifications. So, you cannot assume that having a lower proportion of women applicants means that they are less qualified for the position because usually it is the opposite.

Regarding women scientists throughout history, this is just a matter of digging – the harder you look, the more women you see. When you start looking for information on any scientific topic you always find women whose contributions have been overlooked (and the same happens for other minority groups). There are very well-documented resources on why women have been pushed away from science and how both passive and active policies are trying to correct historic gender imbalances. Prof. Lisa Williams and colleagues discuss more about the issues that contribute to historical gender gaps in the sciences and their mitigation in their work entitled “The Future of Women in Psychological Science”.

Their interests beyond science

They are all active women. Prof. Fiona S. and Prof. Lisa K. love running before going to work as this helps with their mental health, and Prof. Sarah B. prefers to go surfing. Prof. Lisa W. enjoys listening to podcasts while on long walks and she hopes to do this more often as her son grows older. Prof. Lisa K. also enjoys painting lessons and paints with friends. Prof. Fiona S. started learning to play the piano a few years ago.

Some words of advice for young women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)

These fantastic women agreed that there are a few key points to consider in the early career stages. It is very important to seek out opportunities, roles, and mentors, and to keep cultivating this valuable network over the years. They also recommend consulting a career coach as part of your support and advice network, if possible. When problems arise, do not be afraid to ask for help as problems are often easier to fix than they appear to be. Do not hesitate to say ‘no’ when required – setting boundaries will help ensure you don’t become overwhelmed with basics. Finally, the women agreed that taking the time for being strategic and intentional with career choices will pay off in the end and smooth the road ahead.

My own outcomes…

As an early career researcher and mum of a 2-year-old, this has been a reassuring conversation. Although busy workloads are constant throughout the academic career (no one said this was an easy path!), they have demonstrated that is possible to be a successful women leader in science while maintaining work-life balance. It is also encouraging to see all the new studies referred above aiming to measure historical and current gender inequity in the STEM workforce. These studies certainly provide the tools to address those issues in a conscious and effective way, supporting successful and long careers for young women in STEM. I am deeply grateful to Prof. Sarah B., Prof. Lisa W., Prof. Fiona S., and Prof. Lisa W. for inspiring me and allowing me to pass on their wisdom and advice to the many other young women aiming to pursue careers in STEM.

A Blog of One’s Own – Meet the 2022 Editors!

By Wanutcha (Soon) Lorpaiboon, Maureen Thompson, Inna Osmolovsky, Divya Shah, and Vina Putra

Women make up only 22% of enrolments in STEM courses in Australian universities and only 28% of our nation’s STEM workforce, with men outnumbering women 3:1 in management positions (STEM Equity Monitor 2021). Numerous studies have shown that there is no significant difference in overall aptitude between girls and boys for STEM subjects – this begs the question, why do most young children draw men when asked to draw a scientist?

Children form their understanding of the world based on what they see around them. In television series, male scientists significantly outnumber female scientists. This disparity in the representation of scientists leads many young children to falsely believe that girls are not suited to the study of science and mathematics. The only way to challenge these misconceptions is by increasing the visibility of women in STEM subjects so that young children can see that there is seat at the table for women, and so that young girls know that they are just as deserving of occupying space at this table as their male counterparts.

The UNSW Maths and Science Champions Program was created with the intention of challenging the stereotypes that often hold young girls back when considering STEM as a career option. The program aims to facilitate change by providing female research students with the skills necessary to become visible scientists and advocates so that they can reach out into the wider community and act as role models for young women and girls. This blog was launched so that women in the program could share their stories – it’s a space where women can write about their research, discuss what it’s like to be a woman in STEM, and offer each other support and guidance through advice on navigating the complexities of academia.

As the 2022 editors of the blog, we would like to introduce ourselves:

Wanutcha (Soon) Lorpaiboon


Hi all! I am a PhD student in the School of Chemistry. My research focus is on the application and development of computational models to study the reductive degradation of perfluoroalkyl substances, a class of persistent organic pollutants, and how the process is mediated by inorganic catalysts and enzymes. I like how flexible and interdisciplinary science is to be able to blend such different fields of chemistry, computers, and environmental science. As one of the editors, I hope to make science more accessible, document women’s role in communication, and give visibility to our work! Although I can often be found typing or scrolling through a screen of text, I make time to take long walks through rain and shine in Centennial Park and enjoy listening to book reviews, particularly by a YouTuber called emmie. She reads from a variety of genres and gives creatively themed reviews without giving away too much of the plot.


Maureen Thompson

Hello, I am a PhD researcher in the Centre for Ecosystem Science.  I am delighted to combine my passions for citizen science, amphibian conservation, and big data in my research at UNSW and The Australian Museum. I’m using available data to understand frog breeding patterns and community co-occurrence across Australia. I’m also working to incorporate an understanding of participant motives and behaviour to improve the spatial, temporal, and taxonomic data collected through citizen science. I love the 99% invisible aspect of science – how in a moment of curiosity, I can learn about something that was around me, unexamined, the whole time. As one of the blog editors, I hope to come up for air from my personal purgatory of Stack Overflow tabs and practice presenting, and relating to, science in a palatable way. In my free time I enjoy listening to the podcasts American Hysteria and Swindled while building papier-mâché projects for my rat.  If you don’t have a rat to spoil, I recommend marveling at the long-finned eels in Centennial Park – their life story is incredible.

Inna Osmolovsky


Hi, I am a PhD student in the Environment & Ecology Research Center. Currently, I am exploring how plants migrate in response to climate change. I hope my project will have applications for nature conservation and the mitigation of climate change. I love science because I enjoy learning how nature works, spending so much time observing something that you become a part of it, forgetting, for even just a moment, the real world. I believe that to solve the problems humanity currently faces we need a diverse scientific community, to encourage diverse ideas and possible solutions. This is one of the reasons I am grateful to take part in the Women in Maths and Science Champions Program – I get to encourage young women to pursue a career in science. While doing data entry, I enjoy listening to podcasts – ‘Ologies’ and ‘Spirits’ are two of my favourites. I also love nature and especially the desert, which I hope to explore soon.


Divya Shah


Hello guys, gals and non-binary pals! I am a PhD student in the School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences (BABS). I use cultured mammalian cells and mouse models to screen mitochondrial uncouplers that could potentially be used as drugs to combat the growing epidemic of metabolic disease. I hope that my work will one day help to improve prognosis and quality of life for those suffering from diseases such as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and type 2 diabetes. I have always loved asking questions and what I love most about research is that I get the opportunity to find answers and figure out how things work on a molecular level. I firmly believe in the importance of inclusion and diversity in science – without representation we lack the necessary perspectives required to address and tackle issues that disproportionately impact marginalized groups in our society. I hope that in being a blog editor for the Women in Maths and Science Champions Program I will be able to help increase the visibility of a diverse community of scientists who are working tirelessly to solve important problems impacting our society and the planet we all share. When I’m not falling down a research rabbit hole, I like to spend my time learning more about art, activism and history, planning my next travel adventure, sewing clothes, playing with my cats, and listening to true crime podcasts.


Vina Putra


Hello, greetings from the UNSW School of Materials Science and Engineering! Yes, this is where I am currently doing my PhD. My research aims to understand how stem cells, as living materials that build tissues, adapt to a range of biochemical and biophysical cues – emulating those in development and healing. I specifically study the nanosized skeletal filaments of the cells which are responsible for helping cells adapt and acquire the structure and function that indicates what type of tissues they become. Ultimately, I hope to use this knowledge to better engineer materials and/or devices for regenerative medicine. I love that every minute I spend at work, I get to learn and bridge different disciplines: biology, physics, mechanics, and chemistry. Lifelong learning is what I value most, and Science has given me the opportunity to continuously seek knowledge (since the day I got fascinated by a chick embryo heartbeat in high school!). As one of the editors for the Women in Maths and Science Champions Program blog, I look forward to promoting accessibility of knowledge and opportunities to learn and pursue Science for young students who are always curious about how nature works. I also love traveling, writing and sharing ideas/experience around science and academia through my own blog – please do check it out!



Personal blog:

Stay tuned for fortnightly blog posts where we’ll be interviewing our fellow female scientists, discussing ways to extend your reach / advocate for science, and much more! If you would like to collaborate on a blog post or other project, please reach out to us through email or social media.