Australian science confronts its #MeTooPhD moment

  Last updated April 5, 2018 at 12:17 pm


Allegations of sexual harassment against Terry Speed, one of Australia’s most decorated scientists, has shone a spotlight on a problem that is rife within the scientific community.

Credit: iStock

Women scientists have told the ABC that sexual harassment and other inappropriate behaviour is a big part of why more women don’t make it to the upper echelons of the scientific community in Australia.

“I have been pushed out of a position because of negative circumstances within my workplace that weren’t adequately addressed by my manager and HR,” zoologist Dr Tamara Keely told ABC Radio National’s Background Briefing. “And I know of a lot of people that have been in the same situation.”

The ABC investigation was sparked by findings by the University of California, Berkeley, that Australian mathematician Professor Terry Speed had violated that institution’s sexual harassment policy.

He has denied that his conduct towards a research assistant, for privacy reasons known only as Barbara, amounted to harassment.

Speed, who previously had a reputation as a champion for women in science, has been professor of statistics at Berkeley for nearly 30 years. He is also the head of a bioinformatics lab at Australia’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. In 2013, he was awarded the Prime Minister’s science prize.

The complaint against him, claims that he on one occasion walked Barbara home and wanted to hug, despite her objections. Then followed a barrage of emails, sometimes many a day, that included references to the woman’s attractiveness. “I try to ignore beautiful women … this explains [my delay] in my falling for you,” he wrote in one email, while in others Speed said he wanted Barbara to “sit on [his] knee all day”.

Terry Speed had a reputation as a supporter of women in science.

The Berkeley investigation found that, after Barbara had rejected his advances, Speed refused to provide a reference for her when applying for jobs after her postdoc placement ended.

Professor Nalini Joshi, of the University of Sydney and one of Australia’s most decorated professors of mathematics, told the program that the way the scientific community is organised lends itself to abuse.

“They say that sexual harassment is more prevalent in hierarchical environments and they occur ‘especially where bravado, posturing and denigration are sanctioned’,” she told Background Briefing.

“The offender usually has great power over a complainant’s future career. There are often no witnesses. The organisation tends to impose secrecy and confidentiality conditions on the complainant, partly to protect reputational damage. And often very little knowledge of punitive measures are known to be taken against any offender.”

The #MeToo movement, in which thousands of women have used #MeToo to share their stories of sexual harassment and assault, led to outpourings under #MeTooPhD, of stories of abuse in academia.

Background Briefing highlighted moves in Australia to combat the problem and to make science careers more attractive to women. It is a problem of concern to the Superstars of STEM – a program run by Science and Technology Australia, one of Australia’s leading science trade associations.

In a discussion with Chief Scientist Alan Finkel and Minister Michaelia Cash, one of the Superstars spoke about how a male colleague took over her research project while she was on maternity leave.

“And then they get all the credit for it at the end,” she said.

“So often it’s another postdoc and they’re really interested in their career as well, which is a great opportunity for them, but sometimes you don’t get all of the credit that you deserve.”

Another, Tamara Keely, a postdoctoral research fellow with the University of Queensland’s School of Agriculture and Food Science, said that it had been hinted to her that having a family could hinder her career.

“Essentially in a roundabout way I was told that I wouldn’t be able to handle a particular position if that was something that I was pursuing, a family,” she said.

“You know, if I become pregnant, I’m worried that my contract is not going to get renewed in a year’s time.”

You can listen to the episode of Background Briefing or download the transcript from ABC Radio National here

About the Author

Bill Condie
Bill is former Head of Publishing at the Royal Institution of Australia. Previously he was Publisher of the popular science magazine, Cosmos, based in Melbourne, Australia. Bill has been a journalist for more than 30 years and his work has been published in Cosmos magazine, The Guardian, The Observer, The Times, The Daily Telegraph and the London Evening Standard.