First-person perspectives on the world of work
Photo: Dr Natasha Hurley-Walker

The Future of Work Podcast

Episode 15
Gender equality

The universe still has the capacity to surprise us

11 February 2022

There is an enormous demand for scientific skills in the world of work. But if not enough women are inspired and encouraged to study science, they risk missing out on the jobs of the future and scientific professions risk losing the perspectives that women bring to the table.

On International Day of Women and Girls in Science we explore why the world needs science, and science needs women and girls.

Dr. Natasha Hurley-Walker, award-winning radio astronomer, explains how science is a key part to navigating the complexity of the world that we're in and what can be done to close the gender gap in this field.


-Hello, and welcome to this episode of the ILOs Future of Work Podcast.

I'm Anders Johnsson coming to you from the ILO in Geneva

and today we're going to talk about and celebrate

the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

Since 2015, the 11th of February has been a day to recognize

the critical role women play in science and technology,

but also to promote with the UN calls, the full and equal access to

and participation in science for women and girls.

However, we're still far from achieving equality in this field.

This matters because there is an enormous demand for STEM skills,

science, technology, engineering, and maths

and if not enough women are inspired and encouraged

and supported in studying science, they risk missing out

on the jobs of the future.

We would all be poorer for it if we lose the perspectives

and experiences that women bring to the table.

The world needs science and science needs women and girls.

As seen so vividly during this pandemic,

women have led groundbreaking research and been on the front lines

of COVID-19 response as scientists, healthcare workers,

and more,

yet according to your UNESCO, only 33%

of the world's researchers are women.

In addition, the higher you go in the scientific professions,

the less women one finds.

What should we be doing to get more women

and girls interested in science, but also keep them in science?

To answer those questions and a lot more I'm incredibly honored

and excited to introduce today's guest,

Dr. Natasha Hurley-Walker,

astrophysicist at the Curtin University Node

of the International Center for Radio Astronomy Research.

She's the award-winning astronomer,

passionate about understanding the universe,

and luckily for us,

she's also passionate about bringing the beauty

of astronomy to the world.

Now, after obtaining her PhD in radio astronomy

from the University of Cambridge, she moved to Australia

where she helped create the first-ever panoramic view

of the universe at low radio frequencies.

Earlier this year, she had the scientific community

aflutter with her team's latest discovery.

Dr. Hurley-Walker, thank you so much for joining us today.

-Thanks for having me, Anders. Great to be here.

-Well, I just have to bring this up first because I'm a terrible geek,

but your team made a discovery which was in the news recently

and which had a lot of the fans of astronomy really excited.

What was it and what was so significant about your findings?

-That's right.

It's been a very wild ride.

I'm a radio astronomer and my science involves

mapping the sky using radio waves.

Radio waves are just long-wavelength light

and we do this with fantastic radio telescopes.

Usually, I'm working on putting together really deep,

beautiful images of the universe, but we're doing a big survey

of the entire sky and I thought

it would be a fun student project to look at what changes between our observations.

In 2020, I supervised a

very capable undergraduate student Tyrone O'Doherty

and he took pairs of observations that we'd made, radio frequencies,

and looked at what changed.

We didn't really expect to see anything because at low radio frequencies,

usually, the universe is pretty static.

We're looking at distant galaxies far away,

we're looking at our own Milky way and cosmic magnetic fields,

but he found this radio source that switched on,

and then it disappeared.

That was really, really unusual.

We weren't expecting to see something like that.

In 2021, he moved on to do a PhD with some fantastic colleagues.

In 2021, I looked further into the data and I found that the source

not only was switching on and off, it was switching on and off

in this regular clock work fashion

and it was doing so at a time cadence that had never before been seen.

We do know about some radio sources which switch on and off,

you might have heard of pulsars, they are rotating neutron stars.

They're these incredible collapsed remnants

of massive stars with huge magnetic fields.

They beam out radio waves and as they spin,

the radio waves sweep across what our line of sight,

like what we are looking at and we see a pulse.

We were seeing something that looked a bit like that,

but really slow repeating once every 18 minutes.

This basically challenges everything we know about neutron stars

and everything we know about things that blink in space.

Nobody expected this and it's been just a crazy ride

taking this discovery to conferences and saying,

what do people think it is and people going,

"I have no idea. This is incredible."


That's been really fun.

I've discovered a lot of things in my career,

but discovering something totally unexpected

that's just been the absolute highlight.

That's why everyone's very excited because no one knows quite what it is.

Although we do have some good theories.

-The one question that I immediately, or at least a lot of articles

bring up obviously is, is this sign of extraterrestrial activity?

Yet the idea that it's not in many ways, is actually more interesting

it seems to me because it asks, as you said,

more questions about our knowledge of how the universe works.

Was that your sense?

-Yes, that's right.

We know it's not aliens because it looks just like a natural object.

There's no information encoded in these pulses.

They operate across a really wide range of frequencies.

The power involved with generating a pulse like this,

well, you need the power of a rotating neutron star

with a massive magnetic field.

It's not something that any civilization could possibly do,

or if they did, they'd have better things to do

than send out a signal that looks exactly like a natural object.

I think it is really exciting in a completely different sense

showing us that the universe still has the capacity to surprise us.

We have theories about how the universe works

and what it's made up of, but to find something

completely unexpected challenges those theories.

I've been really happy to bring this discovery to the community.

I know it's put all of astronomy in a little bit of a fluff.

Everybody is trying to come up with ideas.

Of course, I think that we're going to find more of them

and that will help us solve the mystery.

-That's fantastic.

Tell us a little bit more about your work as a radio astronomer.

What does this entail and why do you think perhaps

it's important that we do it?

-Radio astronomy was invented in the 1920s

by Jansky and Reber who first noticed that there were

these radio waves coming from the universe.

That was really the first time that anyone had noticed

electromagnetic radiation coming from a different frequency

other than what you can see with your eyes.

For a long time, people just didn't really believe

that it was interesting.

Reber was this fantastic chap.

He presented a map of the sky in radio waves

to the most distinguished astronomers of his day.

They just had absolutely no interest in it whatsoever.

They were like, well, this is just some kind

of engineering thing.

We don't know what to do with this.

It doesn't gel with our existing theories.

It took like a decade of advancement and World War Two,

frankly, for people to be using radio for other means

to get the technological advances to the point where people

could really understand what was happening with the radio waves.

Then suddenly everybody wanted to be a radio astronomer

because radio astronomy reveals things that are far outside our Milky Way.

Some of the radio sources that people found turned out

to lie billions of light-years away.

That challenges our very understanding of the size of the universe.

It's kind of like the Copernican revolution

where you go from just looking at our solar system

and the planets moving around the sun.

That's a development above the sun moving around the earth and then you realize,

oh, that solar system's in the galaxy, but then to go from that,

to this galaxy is part of this huge cosmos.

Radio astronomy has been really instrumental there.

The other thing it does is it opens up that spectrum.

Once you realize you can do radio astronomy,

well, why not everything in between?

Microwave, infrared, go beyond, do X-ray, gamma-ray.

It was the start of what we call the Multi-wavelength Revolution.

That has now led to the Multi-messenger Revolution,

which is now that we're using neutrinos,

cosmic rays, gravitational waves.

It was that first step in exploring an invisible universe.

It's still hugely important in astronomy today.

-The universe is full of wonders.

-Yes, it really is.

-Turning to the issue of women in science, are there a lot of women in astronomy?

What's been your experience in that field?

-We have a really good gender balance in the early career stages of astronomy.

We'll typically see in the master's degree and PhD programs,

about 50/50 female to male, and usually,

for the first couple of postdocs, that's also true.

There is definitely a paucity of women at the higher positions.

The drop-off, it really happens at this very difficult part

in your career where you potentially want to have children,

or your parents are getting a little bit older,

so you might have other caring responsibilities.

Perhaps you want to settle down, start a family,

but also there become fewer jobs on the market

as you go to more senior levels, it becomes very competitive.

If you're in the United States,

there's this really difficult period of trying to get onto the 10-year track

and a similar situation replicated across much of the world.

If you know the German situation there's the #IchbinHanna movement

where in Germany and to some degree the Netherlands

as well, you can only have a small number

of what are called post-doctoral contracts,

so short-term jobs after your PhD,

and after that, you need to land the permanent position.

These things tend to collide for women, they're not great for men either.

This is a bad system for everybody.

It's particularly difficult for women because we can't put off having children

past a certain age,

so it becomes a little bit of a bottleneck and unfortunately,

astronomy is not really any better at this than anywhere else.

I definitely have fewer senior female colleagues

than male colleagues, but

there are lots of champions for changing this

and it's one of the things I’m really passionate about.

I think at least part of that is to share one's experiences to be open about it,

to talk about it and to push for change.

-What do you think studying science contributes

to people's character,

personality, or general outlook on life?

Why should we be encouraging this?

-I think in a complicated world and a complex world

like we have it's really important to be able to master skills,

critical thinking, analyzing risk, looking at things

in a kind of quantitative fashion and certainly as the COVID pandemic

has revealed, understanding things like exponential growth

is really important.

When we look at the big challenges that are facing our species

like climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, we need to be able

to synthesize information across a range of sources

and assess the credibility of those sources.

These are skills that perhaps are being siloed a little bit

into STEM careers.

I feel like these are wide skills that we all need

as humans living in a complex society as we do

which is why I’m so passionate about outreach for science

because it's not just about inspiring people and saying,

"Oh, look at this beautiful picture I made of the universe,"

it's about introducing them to things like the scientific method

and how peer review works. So I’ll propose an idea,

another scientist will knock it down and I’ll say, "Thank you."

Not, no, my idea is correct, I have to stick by it.

I’ll say, "Thank you for challenging me," and together we're going to get better

and closer to the truth.

I think there's a lot of really good philosophical aspects

of science

and I think that it's not the only way to live,

you've got to have ethics in there, you've got to think about morality,


There's lots of other important ways of looking at the world,

but I do think science is a really key part to navigating

the complexity of the world that we're in.

-What inspired you to get into science?

-Well, quite frankly, I was six years old and we'd just moved to the United States.

I was born in the UK and we move there for my parents work

and I think I was jet lagged.

We had just moved into this little tiny house

and we had wrestled a TV into place to try and keep us kids,

our attention off all the moving boxes while my parents were sorting things out.

My dad put on a TV show and the volume on the TV was set to absolute maximum.

That was... somehow it had ended up in that position.

It just so happened that the Starship Enterprise

at that moment appeared on the screen with a huge blare

of trumpets, the first opening bars of the Star Trek Next Generation theme

and my tiny mind just exploded, I think, and I was absolutely hooked.

Thursdays at seven o'clock I had to watch

every single Star Trek Next Generation episode

that came out, and I guess we arrived in 1989

which was I think in the middle of Season 1 or 2.

[laughter] So I got to watch all of Star Trek.

My son is called Jean-Luc.

I am a big Star Trek nerd, unapologetic about it.

My daughter's middle name is Catherine, if anyone gets the reference.

Star Trek did play a big part in getting me interested.

Then after that it was just this way of looking at the world,

being able to understand more and more about it

by working together with different people

and as well that idea that, unfortunately,

the universe is hard to explore on a spaceship,

it takes a lot of effort and time and frankly

we don't live long enough to go anywhere really exciting.

When I discovered telescopes and you can explore the universe

while staying in one place, I’m very happy.

This is what I want to be doing.

-In 2019 already you were named by Science and Technology Australia

as one of the Superstars of STEM.

What is its aim?

-It's a fantastic program run here in Australia by Science

and Technology Australia.

What they noticed, they are an organization

that represents all of the professional scientific societies

in Australia to the government.

What they noticed was that when they looked

at media interviews and who was being asked

about the latest findings, who was being quoted,

they noticed that women were not being quoted

in nearly as many media articles as men.

The ratio was something like five to one,

despite the fact that while gender bias in science it's not great.

It's nowhere near 80/20.

So they thought this is terrible because who's reading these articles?

The general public and young women are going to be reading these articles

and thinking that all scientists are men.

There's those classic bias experiments where they have children draw

a scientist and every child was drawing a man.

So they decided this is one of the things that's stopping women

from getting into science, is that they don't see themselves in science.

I say Star Trek was a big inspiration to me,

but I have to say as well, it was super important

that I was living in Houston

and Sally Ride was one of the first female astronauts

as, well, she was the first female astronauts,

there was a female cosmonaut before her,

but you didn't hear much about that in Texas.

Knowing that a woman had gone into space, it wasn't like I wanted

to be her or anything.

It was more that it just told me,

"Oh, there's a place for me in space research in astronomy."

STA have noticed, oh, look, we need to raise

the visibility of women.

There are female scientists, clearly lots of them,

but they're not getting their voices heard.

They form the Superstars of STEM program

to every two years choose cohort of talented women

across Australia in all sorts of different scientific disciplines.

Give us a bit of media training, a bit of public speaking

and that training to make us a little bit better communicators if needed.

A bit of networking and that soft skills and then ask us to do outreach

with schools, put ourselves forward in the media.

Amazingly, so this has been running for about six years now

and the proportion of women cited in articles

and being quoted in TV and radio is going up.

The program seems to be working as well perhaps indicative

of a larger social change.

I think that's fantastic.

There's this phrase you can't be what you can't see.

I'm not entirely sure 100% agree with that. Someone's

always got to be the first, someone's got to be Mary Curie

or Ada Loveless, but it certainly helps.

-What actions then have you seen that have been effective

in getting more girls into studying science

or at least in terms of encouraging them to stay in scientific fields?

-There's two questions there.

One is getting women into science in the first place.

I would say that the bias there starts actually really young.

In primary and early secondary school.

By late secondary school there's not a lot you can do.

Girls have chosen their subjects of interest

and if that point they've been moved or biased out

of a scientific discipline, then they're not going to change

their minds when they're 18.

I notice this in primary schools and I'm not a sociologist.

I'm not across all the best ways to encourage this,

but I think having that visibility and making sure

that you don't segregate boys and girls and have boys working

in the workshop while the girls do the knitting

there's some obvious wins there.

But the problem can get exacerbated by these unconscious biases.

My amazing PhD student,

Catherine Ross,

she runs a program here in Australia

called Include Her.

She looked at the New South Wales, which is one of the states

of Australia, high school physics syllabus and she counted the number of times

a male scientist was mentioned and she counted the number

of times female scientists were mentioned.

Do you want to have a guess of what she found?

-80/20 more or less again?

-Try only male scientists noted, no female scientists.

Not even Mary Curie who's a renowned physicists, discovered radioactivity.

There were two women mentioned in the curriculum,

Edna Krabappel and Maggie Simpson

were used as examples and treated as objects

in a scientific diagram explanation.

That's an appalling failure and a real display of the kind of biases.

If young women are taking this course they're not going to see themselves

in the scientist's names, they're not going to see themselves

drawn in a diagram and used as an object of fun.

That's awful.

She's taken on herself--

She runs this campaign "Include Her" and lots of volunteers

across Australia are going through all the curricula

and proposing changes.

She has had success with some of the state governments

in changing their curricula.

I think the first one comes into practice maybe next year

in Queensland, I think, to update their curricula.

So that there are female scientists mentioned when appropriate

when they have discovered something.

It's that simple.

There's that bias in that sector.

We do notice though when research is presented as an option, women love it.

It's a fantastic thing doing research.

Working with people, exploring things, being okay with being wrong,

and learning from your mistakes,

these are all skills that either gender can master perfectly successfully.

So we find perfectly equal enrollments typically sort

of masters and PhD.

As I said, it gets difficult when you get to this difficult age

of choosing whether to start a family or perhaps you have

more caring responsibilities.

At that stage, obviously, a different intervention is needed

and I'm seeing a lot of success with programs

that support mothers to attend conferences,

that give them the support they need when they transition

back from maternity leave.

Things like flexible working,

being able to drop down to part-time and then come back up to full-time again,

teaching support.

There's a whole range of different measures.

It's clearly not perfect because we still see the gender bias.

I guess for the really serious actions,

Lisa Culley wrote a fantastic paper last year

about the kinds of affirmative action that are needed,

and essentially, at some level, people are still hiring people

who look like them, so some level of quotas

or women-only positions are needed.

Otherwise, she projected we won't see gender equity

at least in Australia in astronomy for over 100 years.

Just too long to wait.

-Yes, that's for sure.

A lot of these examples that you have mentioned seem

to be oriented towards women.

What is the role perhaps of men?

What would be my role in a sense?

What do you think perhaps men or male scientists

should be doing to make science more inviting for women and girls?

-Yes, I think that's a really lovely thing to ask

and there's a whole range of things that can be done

from a small scale up to a large scale.

Small-scale things are classic allyship.

If there's a woman in the room and she makes suggestion

and nobody listens, amplify her voice don't steal her idea.

If there is a meeting and someone offers to take the minutes

and it's a woman, and there's more men

than women in the room and there's no particular reason

why a woman should be doing this, offer to take the minutes.

There's all these little actions that you can take that reduce

this kind of default academic housework on our female staff.

Up to the bigger changes, actually, listening to the women.

A lot of the time mid-career women will put their heart

on the line they'll say, "These are the challenges I have.

I have a child with disabilities.

I'm separated, I'm doing this as a single mum.

I have too much teaching load and I can't get the research done

because I'm working part-time so the research falls

to the wayside while I do the teaching.

Hear me." What they need is for people who are in charge,

who predominantly tend to be men, to listen and give them

the support that they need.

I can't be prescriptive and say exactly what all-male senior leader should do

but it can definitely start with listening to the women who are having

the problems and helping them.

-You're an absolute star, thank you so much for joining us today.

-Oh, Thank you so much, Anders, it's been lovely to be here

and I hope people have enjoyed me talking a little bit about

what it's like to explore the universe.

-I'm sure they have.

To all you science fans out there, thank you for listening in today

and I wish you all a really great International Day

of Women and Girls in Science.

Our guest was astrophysicist, Dr. Natasha Hurley-Walker,

and I hope that she inspired you all as much as she did me.

Finally, if you want to know more about her work

or more about the future of work,

please visit out website at voices.ilo.org for more interviews and stories

like this one.

Of course, please join us again for our next episode

of the ILO's Future of Work podcast.

For now, goodbye.

Share of women among researchers worldwide, 1996-2018

Dr Natasha Hurley-Walker stands next to one of the 256 tiles of the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) telescope, which was used to detect the mysterious radio source.

Dr Natasha Hurley-Walker stands next to one of the 256 tiles of the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) telescope, which was used to detect the mysterious radio source.

© Dr Natasha Hurley-Walker

A view of the Milky Way in radio frequencies from the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) telescope. The lowest frequencies are in red, middle frequencies in green, and the highest frequencies in blue. The white star icon shows the position of the mysterious radio source.

© Dr Natasha Hurley-Walker (ICRAR/Curtin) and the GLEAM Team.