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Launch of 7th Annual Research Week - Advancing Research for Sustainable Development

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Women in Science


Speaker: Speech by The Ambassador for Women and Girls, Natasha Stott Despoja AM (check against delivery)

University of Mauritius

Introduction and acknowledgements

Vice Chancellor Professor Mohee, Pro-Chancellor, Pro-Vice Chancellors, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen

It is a great pleasure to be with you for the launch of the University of Mauritius Research Week.

Thank you, Vice Chancellor, for the invitation to join you at this event, and for providing me with an opportunity to spend some time focussed on an issue that has been a longstanding passion for me – higher education.

I am always excited to see people achieving their potential through education, especially girls and women, as they are often denied equality of opportunity.

I am excited to see people using their academic endeavours as a springboard into a lifetime of contribution to their communities.

That thrill has been at the heart of my work – as a student representative, as a Senator in Australia's Parliament and now in my role as Australia's Ambassador for Women and Girls – to promote equal access to education.

So, being at your university this morning feels like a home-coming of sorts – a return to a familiar and cherished place. I'm delighted to be back on a campus.

The physical environment might be different from one university to the next, but the energy of inquiry and creativity, the intellectual buzz, the pursuit of academic and research excellence, the thirst for new ideas and novel ways of looking at the world, is the same across all campuses.

However, in these institutions, as in industry and in our communities broadly, there is one idea which should not be new or novel, and yet surprisingly, for some, it is. And that is the vital role of women in science.

Vice Chancellor, as the first female head of the School of Engineering at the University of Mauritius, the challenges and triumphs of being a trailblazer in this field would be better known to you than many of us here.

I salute you for this landmark achievement – what an inspiring role model you are to present and future generations. I also salute the University of Mauritius for ensuring that no talent is wasted simply because it belongs to a woman rather than a man.

Women in science – the challenges

As recently as 2005, the then president of Harvard University, Dr Lawrence Summers, provoked a furore by arguing that men outperform women in maths and sciences because of biological difference and he claimed that discrimination is no longer a career barrier for female academics.

He made his remarks at a private conference on the position of women and minorities in science and engineering, offering several explanations for the shortage of women in senior posts in science and engineering. In addition to his claims regarding genetic difference, he said that women were reluctant to work long hours because of childcare responsibilities.

Some of his audience expressed shock; others described the comments as depressingly familiar.

A chemistry professor at the University of Oklahoma said, "I have heard men make comments like this my entire life and quite honestly if I had listened to them, I never would have done anything".

It should come as no surprise that in 2006, Dr Summers resigned as Harvard's president in the wake of a no-confidence vote by Harvard faculty in part relating to his conference remarks.

But his was not an isolated case, as the Oklahoma chemistry professor attested.

Too often women scientists and innovators have had to work that bit harder to move from the margins to the centre.

And as a group, generally speaking, they face poorer pay, slower career progression and more obstacles to conducting rewarding research than their male counterparts.

They also face perception problems, such as the attitude that science and research are principally a male pursuit, and that female scientists are somehow not quite up to scratch or that they only play a supporting role in a mixed research team.

Examples of women scientists who were not credited for their work are commonplace.

Austrian Lise Meitner, for example, was instrumental in the discovery of nuclear fission, but her work was published by her male colleague without a co-credit.

British biophysicist, Rosalind Franklin, has only recently been recognised for her contribution to Crick and Watson's 1962 Nobel-winning work on DNA.

Northern Irish astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered the first radio pulsars as a postgraduate student. Her male supervisors were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1974 for the discovery. Many prominent astronomers expressed outrage at Bell Burnell's omission.

Why we need women in science

Now if some of you are daunted by this rather bleak backdrop, let me offer some compelling reasons why it is absolutely crucial that you, and women and girls around the world pursue scientific careers, and why we must promote gender equality in the arena of innovation and research.

Most importantly, it's a matter of making sure that we don't squander the ideas, efforts and talent of more than half the world's population, because the challenges facing the global economy and our societies are simply too great to miss out on women's contributions.

Yes, basic fairness is at stake.

But there are also many who believe the bottom line is the only voice worth listening to, and let me tell you, that voice is screaming for the participation of women in all fields of endeavour.

The United Nations estimates that the Asia-Pacific economy, for example, would grow by an additional US $89 billion annually if women were able to achieve their full economic potential.

More than half the nations in East Asia and the Pacific have restrictions on the types of jobs women can do, a proportion that rises to 80 percent in South Asia, according to a 2013 World Bank report.

Yet the Bank estimates that output per worker would increase 7-18 per cent if female entrepreneurs and employees in the East Asia Pacific region worked in the same types of jobs, sectors and activities as men with a similar level of productive resources.

The recently released 2014 UN Human Development Report described educating women as 'the closest thing to a silver bullet in human development'.

Around the world, we need women to be educated and to be solving problems like climate change and energy and public health.

We need women to find innovative solutions to threats to food and agricultural development.

We need women's creativity for state of the art approaches to teaching and learning.

One such woman, someone I admire greatly, is a 25 year old Australian, Marita Cheng, who in 2012 was named Young Australian of the Year. The prestigious award acknowledged her efforts to encourage young women to develop a passion for a career in engineering.

While a young engineering student at the University of Melbourne, Marita founded an organisation called Robogals, in 2008, as a response to the traditionally low levels of participation by women in engineering and technology.

Robogals runs robotic workshops, career talks and community activities to introduce schoolgirls to engineering. In just five years, Robogals grew to 18 chapters in four countries, and has taught over 16,000 girls robotics.

As we look ahead to 2030, less than two decades from now, the world will need at least 50 percent more food, 45 percent more energy and 30 percent more water to meet rising demands from a growing population with rising standards of living.

We need to reduce carbon emissions, move to renewable energy and ensure energy for all.

We need to close the gap between those living in deprivation on the edge of survival, and those living with conspicuous and excessive consumption.

We can achieve none of this without the active and equal engagement of women.

We must have women at the vanguard of sustainable nation building.

In countries like Australia and Mauritius, this is vitally important.

As Mauritius develops economically, making the transition to an ocean economy and cementing its role as a knowledge hub for the region, the talents of the best and brightest women and men will be crucial.

And in our countries, girls, equally with boys, must be encouraged to develop an interest in science at an early age and encouraged to enter non-traditional disciplines in their higher education and their careers.

This is not a tap that can be turned on at whim. It is the work of generations.

We must break down cultural and institutional barriers behind gender discrimination in non traditional occupations for women.

We must create the legal and policy environment to provide incentives for institutional change.

All this easier in the long term if we also change attitudes and challenge stereotypes, if we encourage girls and showcase the work of women scientists, if we promote inspirational female role models.

And if we provide opportunities for talented women to pursue their educational and employment aspirations.

Australia's regional development initiatives

This is why Australia invests so heavily in education around the world and in its Awards program in the region.

Since the introduction of the Australia Awards Program in Mauritius in 2010, 88 Mauritian women have received scholarships from the Australian Government in sectors identified as a priority for the development of Mauritius.

It's also why, since 2008, Australia has provided funding through its small grants program, the Direct Aid Program, for the construction of primary schools and classrooms in the region to improve access to education, especially for girls and women.

It's why we are working with partners across the 20 members states of the Indian Ocean Rim Association to promote women's economic empowerment.

Most recently, I hosted a Dialogue in Kuala Lumpur which attracted 100 representatives from IORA countries to develop recommendations for our countries to advance the participation of women in their economies.

Finally, it's why Australia values so highly its educational cooperation with Mauritius.

In July this year, Australia was delighted to welcome Professor Mohee to a conference at the Australian National University on promoting partnership between Government, academia and business.

And we were pleased to support the recent visit of Professor Durant, the Director of Questacon, Australia's National Science and Technology Museum to Mauritius.

While here, Professor Durant help a number of workshops, including at three girls schools, to showcase the lighter side of science to encourage young girls to continue their studies in the field.

Because this is where it begins.

As a case in point, some of you may have heard of Maryam Mirzakhani, a young Iranian woman who did poorly at maths for several years at school because she was not interested in the subject. Growing up in Tehran, her school was near a street full of bookshops and she dreamed of becoming a writer.

But Mirzakhani's brother would come home from school and tell her stories of what he had learned, including, one day, the story of German mathematician, Carl Friedrich Gauss, who as a school boy worked out in seconds how to sum all the numbers from 1 to 100.

(I understand the answer is 5050 by the way, and the trick is to look at pairs that add up to 101.)

The seed of that story began to germinate in Mirzakhani. A school principal, a woman who was committed to giving her female students the same opportunities as boys, encouraged Mirzakhani's interest in maths.

And then last month, 37 year old Mirzakhani, now as a maths professor at Stanford University, was named the first female winner of the world's most prestigious mathematics prize, the 80 year old Fields Medal, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for mathematics.

Mirzakhani's award has been described as the moment one of the last bastions of male dominance fell.


Indeed, we have come a long way since the 1880s when Cambridge University student Annie Maunder came top in her class for mathematics, but was refused a degree because formal degrees were only awarded to men. More a sticky floor in the 1800s, than the glass ceiling of today.

Glass ceilings can be broken, as women such as Mirzakhani and Professor Mohee, the first female Vice Chancellor of the University of Mauritius, have proved.

And as that great woman scientist and two time Nobel Laureate, Marie Curie, once said, "Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something, and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained."

So as I formally launch Research Week at the University of Mauritius, I encourage you all to persevere, to be confident, and to reach for your greatness.

And I wish you a fruitful Research Week.

Last Updated: 15 September 2014
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