Female scientists are being paid less than their male peers, have fewer opportunities for career advancement and are more likely to be considering leaving the industry as a result, according to a new industry employment report that could damage ongoing efforts to increase women’s participation in STEM careers.

Women scientists were making just 82.9 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts, Professional Scientists Australia and Science & Technology Australia found in their latest regular profile of scientific employment.

Base salaries for full-time professional scientists grew 2.2 per cent over the 12 months to May 2020, women reported average salaries of just $102,000 – compared with $123,000 for men.

This was attributed to a combination of factors, including the large number of women in lower-seniority roles and there being fewer women than men working past 40.

Cost-cutting was cited as a major issue by 61 per cent of respondents, with 28.6 per cent saying that the number of scientists in decision-making roles had decreased over the past 12 months.

Such changes had dramatically impacted workers’ mental and physical health, with 45.8 per cent reporting that staff morale had decreased over the past 12 months and 54.6 per cent saying that workers were more fatigued than they were previously.

Some 21.7 per cent of women were planning to leave the science workforce permanently, compared with just 15.7 per cent of men – citing reasons including a lack of recognition, opportunities, career advancements and the competing demands of parenthood.

Building up science’s image

“With the world’s hopes pinned on scientists to find us a way out of the pandemic,” Science & Technology CEO Mischa Schubert said in launching the new report, “the value of science has never been clearer – yet our scientists don’t always feel that recognition.”

The comments came as the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science were awarded this week, with recipients including the OzGrav team involved in the first direct detection of gravitational waves on Earth; epigeneticist Professor Mark Dawson; solar-cell researcher Associate Professor Xiaojing Hao; and others.

Just 3 of the 10 recipients were women.

Widespread disillusionment with the actual job of working in science highlights a stubborn gender gap that has persisted for many years.

The 2016 survey, for example, identified a similar average pay gap of around 21 per cent – and similarly high levels of fatigue, low morale, and concern about the effect of cost-cutting and deprofessionalism.

With average salaries surging for those with more than 15 years’ experience – but women less likely to be in science careers after 40 – the disenfranchisement of women from senior roles reinforces long-held concerns about ‘glass ceilings’ limiting women’s participation in scientific efforts.

This harsh reality paints a stark contrast to a government and industry narrative that has positioned innovation at the centre of Australia’s post COVID-19 recovery – with CSIRO chief Dr Larry Marshall recently pushing government and industry to “double down on Australian innovation”.

The federal government has recently backed away from mooted cuts to R&D support, ramping up its support for vocational training and targeting support for science-led sectors such as manufacturing and energy.

Yet for all the funding, promises of gender parity and female-focused training and recruitment programs – persistent career limitations, ongoing negative attitudes and early attrition seem poised to perpetuate systemic inequality, depriving industry of the benefits of gender diversity.

Science, as one survey respondent put it, is “really insecure and stressful, with low capacity to develop when you start having kids,” said one respondent whose concerns highlighted STEM’s ongoing issues with representation.

“I will advise my kids to avoid this profession.”