The Program Helping Research Institutions Soar Towards Gender Equity

With gender disparity still prevalent in science-related industries, Australian research institutions are working to improve female participation, diversity and inclusion with the help of an internationally recognised, award-based program.
Emily Evans
Emily Evans
Freelance Writer
The Program Helping Research Institutions Soar Towards Gender Equity
Image credit: AIMS | Marie Roman

From diving the world-famous Ningaloo Reef to spending weeks on a boat in WA’s tropical waters, the Perth-based staff at the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) have a career some can only dream of.

But the organisation has much more to boast about than providing their team with an office in the ocean.

The national research body is also leading the way in gender equity, with an even split of gender participation across its whole workforce.

“Specifically within our WA office, we are about 53% female,” says AIMS Manager of People and Culture Paul O’Regan.

“We’ve grown significantly in the last number of years, we’ve doubled our workforce and we’re on a trajectory to continue growing.

View Larger

AIMS is a world leader in tropical marine research

Image credit: AIMS | Violeta Jahnel Brosig
AIMS is a world leader in tropical marine research

“We’ve got some additional government funding to drive some of the science that we’re working on so it’s really important for us as a world-leading tropical marine researcher, that we continue to attract and retain the best and brightest.”


The gender equity at AIMS is a rarity within science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM).

Globally, only 35% of STEMM students are female, and women make up just over 33% of researchers.

But an initiative bringing gender equity into the spotlight across these industries is Athena Swan. The framework is delivered by Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE).

The program is the only internationally recognised accreditation framework for gender equity, diversity and inclusion in higher education and research.

Athena Swan provides participants with tiered accreditation goals, designed to establish solid foundations for change, which institutions can springboard into effect over the long-term. The first tier is the Bronze Award.

This tier requires institutions to take a deep-dive into their organisation and identify any barriers contributing to inequity and a lack of diversity and inclusion. From there, each individual institution creates an Action Plan to remove or reduce five key barriers.

AIMS received the Bronze Award in 2020, after identifying more than 30 objectives to improve gender equity, diversity and inclusion.

Paul is the project lead for Athena Swan at AIMS, and says some of the actions identified were not surprising.

“A lot of our workforce spend a lot of time at sea so they could go on a vessel and be away for a number of weeks at a time which is obviously challenging for a number of our staff, particularly if you’re a parent of young children,” he says.

“We were aware of things around such things as flexible working arrangements, work life balance, as some of the things we needed to focus on.

View Larger

Flexible working arrangements are a focus for AIMS

Image credit: AIMS | Andre Rerekura
Flexible working arrangements are a focus for AIMS

“We (also) did some work on assisting people to transition back into the workplace after periods of significant leave, promoting gender balance on all of our committees and working groups at AIMS, and reviewing and updating some of our recruitment material.”

AIMS has since created dedicated working groups, tasked with providing feedback on gender equity activity.

“I think what we learned at AIMS is to truly deliver on this, you need to resource it,” Paul says.

“If you don’t have that focus, then…there is risk of this being not delivered as it should be.”


Perth-based Edith Cowan University (ECU) has also been leading the charge for gender equity – fitting for the only Australian university to be named after a woman.

“Our namesake was the first woman elected to an Australian Parliament and she spent a lot of her life redressing inequities for girls and women,” explains Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Regional Futures) and ECU’s Athena Swan Lead, Professor Cobie Rudd.

“We’ve always had a very strong track record and profile in trying to redress inequities and very strong commitment to gender equality.”

When Athena Swan arrived in Australia in 2015, the university immediately jumped on board.

“The moment that it came, we were ready,” Cobie says.

“STEMM is a focus because that’s where the gender disparity has been the most marked and the most prohibiting.

“We wanted to sign up and we wanted to become a beacon for gender quality.”

View Larger

Women make up just over 33% of researchers

Image credit: AIMS | Violeta Jahnel Brosig
Women make up just over 33% of researchers

ECU was one of 11 universities in the first cohort in Australia to receive the Bronze Award in 2018, the first institution in the country to achieve a Cygnet and now, it is the only West Australian institution to achieve all five Cygnet Awards. These are awarded when five key barriers identified by the institution have been addressed, and are required to achieve the Silver Award.

“We worked out that we wanted to go for the hard stuff,” Cobie explains.

“You have to have a fair bit of courage because you’ve got to be able to dig deep into the organisation and work out what doesn’t work and have the courage to say we gave that a go but that did not work.”

Some of the solutions that did work were simple.

“We heard that one of the big problems was you drop the kids off at school and then you can’t get a park (on campus)… so we created Athena Swan parent parking bays,” Cobie says.

“We set up all these Athena Swan parenting rooms as well, so they could put their child in a parenting room in the building where they work.”

But the tertiary education institution went even further.


While more than half of science PhD graduates are women, only 17% of senior academics in Australian universities and research institutes are female.

This is why ECU also targeted inequality at leadership levels.

“We redressed the inadequate support systems that were inhibiting the promotion of women in STEMM,” Cobie explains.

“We recruited more women into professorial research roles because having women in leadership is really important.

“There’s a lot of research that shows having diversity and inclusion at the highest levels in decision-making will give you better research, more breadth of views, more breakthroughs, and fresh perspectives.”

The proof is in the research pudding. A 2020 report by multinational consulting firm McKinsey found companies who have gender diverse executive teams were 25% more likely to have above-average profits than less diverse organisations.

“It’s that diversity of thought at senior levels that can actually change an institution for the better,” Cobie says.


Despite ECU’s extensive work over nearly a decade, Cobie says there’s more barriers to break down.

“We’re not saying we’ve nailed it by any means,” she explains.

“We feel we’re probably on the right track and we’re going to keep going.”

View Larger

AIMS has more than 50% female participation

Image credit: AIMS | Violeta Jahnel Brosig
AIMS has more than 50% female participation

Despite having more than 50% female participation at AIMS, Paul admits there’s more to be done.

“Just having 50:50 doesn’t mean that we can sit on our laurels,” Paul says.

“What we need to do is continue to provide opportunities for early career scientists, we need to look at providing the leadership opportunities and career development.

“From my perspective, this is a journey that will never end.”

Emily Evans
About the author
Emily Evans
Emily has worked in the media and communications industry in Western Australia as both a TV journalist and media advisor. She has a passion for scientific research and enjoys writing about the latest and quirkiest discoveries. Emily is also a big fan of going on adventures, eating Mexican food, and travelling the world.
View articles
Emily has worked in the media and communications industry in Western Australia as both a TV journalist and media advisor. She has a passion for scientific research and enjoys writing about the latest and quirkiest discoveries. Emily is also a big fan of going on adventures, eating Mexican food, and travelling the world.
View articles


We've got chemistry, let's take it to the next level!

Get the latest WA science news delivered to your inbox, every fortnight.


Creative Commons Logo

Republishing our content

We want our stories to be shared and seen by as many people as possible.

Therefore, unless it says otherwise, copyright on the stories on Particle belongs to Scitech and they are published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

This allows you to republish our articles online or in print for free. You just need to credit us and link to us, and you can’t edit our material or sell it separately.

Using the ‘republish’ button on our website is the easiest way to meet our guidelines.


You cannot edit the article.

When republishing, you have to credit our authors, ideally in the byline. You have to credit Particle with a link back to the original publication on Particle.

If you’re republishing online, you must use our pageview counter, link to us and include links from our story. Our page view counter is a small pixel-ping (invisible to the eye) that allows us to know when our content is republished. It’s a condition of our guidelines that you include our counter. If you use the ‘republish’ then you’ll capture our page counter.

If you’re republishing in print, please email us to let us so we know about it (we get very proud to see our work republished) and you must include the Particle logo next to the credits. Download logo here.

If you wish to republish all our stories, please contact us directly to discuss this opportunity.


Most of the images used on Particle are copyright of the photographer who made them.

It is your responsibility to confirm that you’re licensed to republish images in our articles.


All Particle videos can be accessed through YouTube under the Standard YouTube Licence.

The Standard YouTube licence

  1. This licence is ‘All Rights Reserved’, granting provisions for YouTube to display the content, and YouTube’s visitors to stream the content. This means that the content may be streamed from YouTube but specifically forbids downloading, adaptation, and redistribution, except where otherwise licensed. When uploading your content to YouTube it will automatically use the Standard YouTube licence. You can check this by clicking on Advanced Settings and looking at the dropdown box ‘License and rights ownership’.
  2. When a user is uploading a video he has license options that he can choose from. The first option is “standard YouTube License” which means that you grant the broadcasting rights to YouTube. This essentially means that your video can only be accessed from YouTube for watching purpose and cannot be reproduced or distributed in any other form without your consent.


For more information about using our content, email us:

Copy this HTML into your CMS
Press Ctrl+C to copy