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Practical policies can combat gender inequality

© Celia Peterson/arabianEye/arabianEye/Corbis

Mechanisms to help researchers to balance work and home lives have made a positive difference to the gender balance at my institute, says Douglas Hilton.

How can science address the gender-inequality problem? It is a persistent issue that has been highlighted again by the controversy over the recent comments by Nobel laureate Tim Hunt about his “trouble with girls”?

The problem in biomedical research was starkly demonstrated to me just before I became director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia, in 2009. I chaired my first meeting of the senior academic staff and, despite having had a high-profile female director — Suzanne Cory — for more than a decade none of the 20 department heads or professors in the room were women.

I pledged to improve the gender balance, and five years on, I think we have made some progress. We now have four female professors or department heads. That is hardly a reason for wild celebration, but given that we began from such a woeful base it is a start.

So what have we done? Simply, we asked the people affected — women in their postdoctoral period — for their ideas.

For our institute, some of the simplest changes included steps to ensure that all important meetings are held within school hours, to make sure that researchers with child-care duties can attend.

We have also set up a dedicated office with hot-desks and an adjoining room in which small children can play and older children can do homework or watch television, under the supervision of their parents.

Picture credit: © Celia Peterson/arabianEye/arabianEye/Corbis

Read the full news on Nature website