Meet Emily Nicholson, empowering women

Deakin news
15 July 2016

For Dr Emily Nicholson, science is not just about what's in the lab; it's also about ‘who’ is in the lab.

Gender equality in her workplace is just as important an issue to her as those faced by the ecosystems she dedicates her life to protecting and, as Emily identifies, the breaking of gender barriers can actually have a positive impact on breaking research barriers.


An unequal field

Being a scientist, Emily is keen to refer to the facts on gender inequality in science:

‘Data suggests there is a divide,’ she says.

‘Women make up at least 50 per cent of science graduates and postgraduates in most areas of science, but those levels drop when you look at lectureships and professorships. There are also divides in applications for grants, and even grant success.’

Studies have shown that even when gender-mixed employers consider identical CVs from a male and a female, they will tend to lean toward the male.

Early in my scientific career, I pursued research while remaining blissfully unaware of the difficulty of securing a permanent academic position, especially for women and mothers.

Dr Jacqui Adcock

Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow

Dr Emily Nicholson

Breaking through the glass ceiling

Emily speaks with some authority. As one of the country's emerging top female scientists, she is well aware of the glass ceilings that exist in academia and elsewhere.

But it hasn't stopped her achieving an extraordinary position in her field.

Last year, Emily was part of the team that picked up a coveted Eureka Award for work on the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems. 

The Red List assesses ecosystems over time and identifies those most in danger. The approach is in use in Norway and Finland, will be adopted in Australia, and is being considered in China, Madagascar, and Kenya.

She was also recognised as one of the first Inspiring Women Fellows by the Victorian Government in 2015. This award recognised Emily's ground-breaking work as a woman in a historically male field. 

In particular, it was an acknowledgement of her conclusions in a well-received article published in top international journal Science in May 2015.

The article addressed head-on the challenges Emily has experienced throughout her career.

‘Early in my scientific career, I pursued research while remaining blissfully unaware of the difficulty of securing a permanent academic position, especially for women and mothers. [Eventually] I recognised the need to adopt a sound strategic approach to securing a tenured faculty position, particularly given the breaks in my career.’

Emily was subsequently able to manage her work, and her time away from work on maternity leave, and prove she was still able to be not only productive, but up-to-date.

Emily acknowledges that her work, and that of others, both men and women, in the field, is changing its landscape.

‘Kids now don't have such strong [gender specific] stereotypes. People are more aware,’ she says.

‘But, bias is not going away.’

It is not just an issue of fairness, says Emily, but through a lack of varying perspective, the very pursuit of knowledge suffers too.

‘There's a lot of judgement on how you treat data; it's the questions you ask,’ she says.

‘There's evidence that diverse groups make better decisions. Older men tend to make riskier decisions.’


Trying to be different at Deakin

Emily puts her early success to being mentored by both female and male figures who looked beyond standard stereotypes of scientists.

She is committed to do the same, and to give young scientists the kind of start she believes is denied to many.

And she's right at home with Deakin University.

‘Deakin is a great, diverse environment with people from different backgrounds,’ she says.

‘I would see it as a mark of personal success if young women chose Deakin because there was a more equal environment here.’

In between various craft projects and a busy family life with three kids, Emily is rising fast in both science and gender equality advocacy.

Combining science with social justice is just the beginning for this inspiring Deakin scientist.

Find out more about research in Deakin’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences

View Emily’s ‘Accounting for career breaks’ research.

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Women make up at least 50 per cent of science graduates and postgraduates in most areas of science, but those levels drop when you look at lectureships and professorships.

Key Fact

Women make up at least 50 per cent of science graduates and postgraduates in most areas of science, but those levels drop when you look at lectureships and professorships.

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