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NHMRC CEO Professor Warwick Anderson

NHMRC calls for gender equity standards

Research institutions may soon be forced to prove they meet workforce gender equity policy standards in order to gain grant funding, under a proposal the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) is touting.

Discussion around the possible measure comes amid NHMRC efforts to highlight the low representation of women in full-time senior medical research roles.

NHMRC CEO professor Warwick Anderson has expressed concern at statistics indicating that just 18 per cent of principle research fellow applications for funding have been coming from female researchers. This compares with about 62 per cent women amongst applicants seeking funding for early-career post-doctorate research.

Under the proposed measures, Anderson said, just as institutions were required to demonstrate adequate policies relating to responsible conduct, ethics and financial management of funds in order to be awarded grants, applicants would also be required to demonstrate that agreed-upon policies supporting women in medical research were also in place.

“We will consult and get feedback from the [institutions] and we’ll take it through our NHMRC advisory committees then come up with a draft policy that will be sent back out for consultation so people will get a chance to see it and respond,” he said. “We are not rushing this but we are determined … to make sure that for the benefit of the health of Australia we don’t throw away the talent of half the population of researchers.”

In June this year, the council wrote to 82 health and medical research institutions – including universities – seeking information on what policies each had in place regarding the retention and employment of female researchers.

The responses were assessed against 10 key criteria, including availability of targeted packages and programs supporting the retention of female researchers, flexible working arrangements, travel or childcare assistance, maternity and parental leave, salary and mentoring.

Anderson said that whilst a pair of universities had so far set high standards amongst the respondents, other institutions appeared to be taking little or no action with regard to supporting gender equity among research staff.

The executive dean of the faculty of medicine nursing and health sciences at Flinders University, professor Michael Kidd, said that whilst he agreed with the push to ensure gender equity within research, most universities – including his own – already had many good policies and programs in place.

“It seems it would be most logical for the NHMRC to have a serious discussion with Universities Australia as to how the two organisations can work together so that rather than the NHMRC imposing something on the universities it would be the NHMRC working with the universities to achieve what I think everyone will agree is an important outcome,” he said.

Associate professor Helena Britt of the University of Sydney’s family medicine research centre said, meanwhile, that the greatest barrier to long-term careers in full-time research for women remained a lack of adequate funding for the sector.

“I am all for encouraging this but it may prove to be difficult to improve because of some of the realities we face,” she said.

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