Australia’s Chief Scientist Cathy Foley on menopause, role models, women in STEM and the importance of older workers in tackling the skills shortage

- September 29, 2021 8 MIN READ
Dr Cathy Foley, Australia's Chief Scientist
Dr Cathy Foley, Australia's Chief Scientist.


Throughout my research and working career, I have never wanted my gender to be an issue.  

I was focused on getting on with the job of being a scientist. But gender is not easily ignored.

I remember trying to fit in when I studied physics at university, and just be one of the boys in what was a pretty male-dominated environment.  So when I got that first position at the CSIRO, I decided to wear  a dress on my first day. This was not something I had ever  done in the lab when I was at university. 

But I soon found as the only female research scientist in the applied physics lab and I reverted quickly to wearing trousers to fit in.  

I’ve had enormous support and opportunities in my career. But it is undeniable that challenges and negotiations related to being a woman have always been a part of it.  

Now I am, as Australia’s Chief Scientist, the most senior science and technology adviser in the country. Yet here I am talking about the challenges facing women in the workplace!  I might have wished gender was not an issue, but I acknowledge that it is.  

As Australia’s Chief Scientist, I see myself as a role model for  all young people who might not realise that they can aspire to a career in science. I did it, and I want all young people, however  they identify their gender, whatever their background, to know  they can too.  

But I’ll say a little more about that later. First, I want to zero in  on some of those points where we need to focus our attention. 

For me, it starts at the beginning with encouraging girls into STEM subjects – and young women into STEM careers. 

The latest STEM Equity Monitor shows that more than a third of men in tertiary education are studying STEM qualifications;  areas related to maths, or the sciences or engineering – excluding health. 

But for women, the figure is only 9%.

That is, more than 90% of women at university or TAFE  are studying for qualifications not related to STEM. When your  country is building its future on high-tech STEM-related  industries, that’s a problem. 

We need more women in engineering, and also in  mathematics, IT and the physical sciences.  

Where women are entering the STEM fields, it’s overwhelmingly in the caring professions such as medical,  environmental and veterinary science. That’s great and I  certainly don’t want to discourage it.  

I know they are choosing careers where they feel they can  make a difference, but I want them to know that they can  absolutely make a difference working in the physical sciences,  tackling complex issues in areas such as climate, energy and  water. 

The obvious question is: How do we bring about change?  

How do we encourage more girls to study STEM at school and aspire to careers in the fields of science and maths?

Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith

Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith

I want to acknowledge the work of our Women in STEM Ambassador, Professor Lisa Harvey Smith and others in and outside of government championing this agenda. Seeking out the data that we still don’t have and measuring the impact of  initiatives underway. 

One of the solutions is to improve visibility of science careers – so you can see yourself in a career that makes sense to you if  you study physics or chemistry, just as you can with, say,  medicine or law.  

Students, teachers and parents need to be able to see the end goal – and know what it looks like to have a job in STEM. 

Role models are also incredibly important. I am constantly hearing from scientists and researchers about the people who  influenced them with they were younger. I know I wouldn’t have ended up in science research without role models and encouragement from inspiring teachers and lecturers. 


Keeping women in STEM

Once young women enter STEM and research careers, the next problem is keeping them there – and helping them  progress upwards. 

I have been talking with many early and mid-career researchers  this year, and the issues they raise are consistent and  concerning: 

  • Lack of support for flexible and part-time work
  • Lack of support for non-linear career paths
  • The unhelpful alignment between the timing of university careers and the age when women have children
  • The way success is measured, which reflects an out-moded system of publication numbers and the like.

It is troubling to hear women saying that going part-time at work damaged their careers.  On the other side of the coin, I have heard from women who felt judged for going back to work too soon.  

This feeling of being judged about your parenting decisions is not confined to the research sector. 

We must also remember that our caregiving structures are in transition. There are so many parenting combinations and our career expectations have to change for everyone, including men. 

One solution I found interesting in the research sector is at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne. 

They have a range of measures around promotions and career breaks to ensure women’s careers stay on track, including building a childcare centre adjacent to their laboratories. 

They have also shaken up the usual system of appointments.  Instead of the usual divide between short-term post-docs and tenured academics, everyone is on a contract in those first years.  

These are just some ideas. We need others. We need different ways of measuring success in the research system that aren’t based on one kind of career path followed by a narrow population. 

We need different expectations in the wider workplace.


Older working women

Now I want to shift the focus of my comments to the other end of the age spectrum. Because we also need to keep women in work through their 50s and 60s. 

There are a lot of issues in the mix for older workers: 

The population is ageing and we can no longer afford to have people retiring at 55 or 60. Australians need to work longer. 

This is a good thing. In my experience, this is when I have seen women’s careers accelerate. This allows us to expand that cohort of senior female role models and leaders. 

I also think that as we look for ways to address our skills shortage, we should remember that older workers with STEM skills are a valuable pool that we can draw from. This is  especially pertinent at the moment given the restrictions on  overseas arrivals. 

But there are barriers. One of these is age discrimination.


Time to talk about menopause

For women, there is an added layer, and that is the issue of  menopause. Yes you heard me right!  

I want to talk a bit about that today, because the system doesn’t always support this phase of women’s lives. Unless we find ways to better support women during  menopause, we risk losing the skills and leadership of women  in their 40s and 50s. 

Menopause is not discussed enough. I know I wouldn’t have felt comfortable talking publicly about it when I went through the experience myself some years ago. 

It’s not as though it’s a small group. Half the population goes through menopause. And it’s not a moment in time – it’s a process that takes some years. 

But there is surprisingly little research relating to the impact of menopause on women’s careers in Australia. Which probably  reflects the fact that it has not had enough focus or visibility.  

In the UK, there’s a strong focus. 

The British Parliament started an inquiry this year – noting that  more than one million women in the UK have left their jobs because of symptoms. This is just at the point in their careers when they should be in  senior positions – the trailblazers and role models for younger  people.

A growing number of women in the UK are launching employment discrimination cases as a result of menopause.5 6 

The British Medical Association reports that female doctors are  reluctant to speak about their own experiences for fear of damaging careers, being ridiculed or making things worse in  male-dominated workplaces.7 

Women often avoid speaking to managers about their  symptoms because managers are men or they’re younger. We can be sure these same things are happening in Australia,  and women are leaving work because of it. 

I don’t know to what extent. But I do know that we have to do everything we can to keep  women supported and productive at work through their 50s and  into their 60s9.  

This means being aware of the challenges that can arise from menopause, and considering ways to ameliorate them. 


Older workers solve skills shortages

This is a matter of equity. It is also a question of ensuring we have that pool of senior female role models and leaders. 

And it is about our nation’s future and our nation’s prosperity.

Dr Cathy Foley in the CSIRO days. Photo: CSIRO

The last thing we want to do is make skilled researchers, scientists and engineers feel the workforce has no place for  them in those final decades of their careers. 

Australia has lost a stream of skilled migration as a result of COVID. 

In 2019, 60% of people aged 60 to 64 were in work – up from just a third in 1999. This is a really significant shift. From 33% to 60% in 20 years. That’s for people aged 60 to 64. 

It takes time to get a pipeline of skilled workers in new industries through the education system, trained up and ready. 

The older workforce provides one of the solutions and we should be using it.  

On this note, I was really pleased to see the launch of the Stem  Returners program in Australia. This is about encouraging  highly skilled people with STEM backgrounds back into the  workforce after a career break, and linking them with jobs, as  well as mentoring through Engineers Australia. 

It starts with 12 weeks, then if the fit is right, the jobs can become permanent.  

This looks like an excellent program for both sides of the equation – providing a pathway back into the workforce for  skilled workers, and a talent pool for industry sectors facing  skills shortages.  


Woman making their marks

Women are also making their mark in science. 

Anyone who saw the spontaneous standing ovation at Wimbledon for the scientists behind vaccine development probably shares my feeling that this was quite an emotional moment. 

It was important recognition of the work of Dame Sarah Gilbert, but also of all the researchers and scientists who have played such a key role in the pandemic response. It was a real demonstration of public trust in science – and it bodes well. 

In 2020, women won the Nobel Prizes for both physics and  chemistry. 

In Australia we have women heading the Australian Research Council, and the National Health and Medical Research Council  – our two main research funding bodies. The new CSIRO Chief Scientist is a woman. The Defence Chief Scientist is a woman. 

So yes, change is slow. But there is momentum. Having women in these really senior positions is normalising.  

One of the challenges female leaders face is the feeling that perhaps they shouldn’t really be there –a kind of imposter syndrome. But it is time to take imposter syndrome off the list of things to worry about.

This is the time to stand confidently and lead by example to inspire and advance the careers of women who come behind us. 


The Science Plus model

It’s great that we scientists are being called on to help address some of Australia’s greatest challenges. And that the role of  scientists is being recognised in our future prosperity – as we  look to accelerate new low-emissions industries, address  climate change, launch a space industry, boost medical  manufacturing, embrace the incredible new digital tools and  quantum technologies. 

But science alone cannot solve the challenges. 

We need what I call “Science Plus”. 

Solutions to the challenges we face need science plus engineering, science plus design, a business case, the right regulation and social licence.

Bringing together all of these pieces of the puzzle is the way to  achieve real-world impact. This is about different disciplines but it’s also about different  ways of thinking. 

We need engineers, experts in business, marketing and communications experts, ethicists and people with the capacity  to think in nuanced ways about safety and community  acceptance.  

This is the thought I want to leave you with today. 

I strongly believe that we won’t achieve what we need to as a nation unless we take that diversity message to heart.  

It is easy to fall into the fallacy of the average. 

The assumption that by catering for the average, society is  doing its job.  It’s like imagining that the bell of the bell curve is the only game. And forgetting that five out of every 100 people are not part of the great bulk in the middle.  

They fit into the tails at the ends of the bell curve for any given  parameter. The thing to remember is that these five in 100 are still part of the normal distribution.  

Science is more than Eureka moments. It is about insight. It is about striving for excellence.  

We have breakthroughs when we look for new ways to apply  our knowledge, or new ways of thinking about complex  problems.  

When we take risks. And when we use all of our human potential in everything we  do. 

Recognising and embracing difference is how we add depth and richness to our decision-making. 

My approach is Science Plus. I ask you, as leaders, to think about how you will broaden your approach to unlock the full human potential in your sectors. 


  • This is an edited version of Chief Scientist Dr Cathy Foley’s Helen Williams Oration to the Institute of Public Administration Australia. You can read the full Helen Williams Oration here.