-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,
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?
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.
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
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,
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.
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,
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.