Smashing barriers for women in international science

Thirty-five women scientists from leading research institutions across Europe and North America banded together recently to co-author a Times Higher Education article, “Women in science are battling both COVID-19 and patriarchy”.


It is a clarion call to the global community that “…the pandemic has worsened long-standing sexist and racist inequalities in science, pushing many of us to say, ‘I’m done’”.

International collaboration is an important part of today’s science and the field in which we are actively attempting to create a level playing field.

A report by Elsevier on Gender in the Global Research Landscape found that, despite an increase in international collaboration, women are less likely than men to collaborate internationally on research papers.

It points to the concept of a ‘glass fence’ – obstacles women face, including structural, social, cultural and funding – that explains some of the many barriers that prevent women from engaging in international collaboration.

How do you tackle gender equality in international research collaboration?

Patriarchy, an invisible mainframe

First, we need to consider patriarchy. Jess Hill, in her recent Stella Prize-winning book, describes patriarchy as “…an invisible mainframe that regulates how we live”.

Essentially, patriarchy is a system of values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours that together create a mainframe, a culture – a culture in which it is (often unconsciously and implicitly) normal that men are favoured over women. The glass fence is a prime example of that.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg exposed part of this system by showing how American law was biased against women. Her tenacious resolve saw her take her case all the way to the Supreme Court, ultimately resulting in changes to the law.

Any action we can take as individuals, or even as organisations, may seem small, but as Bader Ginsburg’s example shows, it is through many small actions and the dogged pursuit of these to an end goal that real change results.

This article is not a polemic, nor is it anti-men. But it is unapologetically anti-patriarchy.

This is a call to dismantle a system that routinely ensures that immense power and privilege resides with a relatively small group of people.

The dismantling of patriarchy is a monumental task that has been going on for decades and requires a sustained effort by the whole community for it to succeed, including a large proportion of men.

Removing the glass fence in research

In 2019, the Australian government funded the Partnership for Australia-Indonesia Research (PAIR), a large, multidisciplinary research programme.

Both countries face challenges in female participation in science. In 2017 women represented 44% of academic staff at Indonesian universities, but only 20% were professors, according to a Knowledge Sector Initiative report. A 2016 report by Universities Australia showed a very similar pattern for Australia.

In our work for PAIR and other bilateral research programmes, we share four principles that we use to create inclusive research teams which seek to smash the glass fence.

Team selection process

Team selection is an important part of PAIR’s team formation stage. This is a complex process that involves establishing trust, understanding institutional priorities and navigating complex institutional structures and interests.

We had to work closely with each partner to align their priorities with our diversity goals.

Governance structure

Ensuring equal representation at all levels of our programme’s governance structure was a priority. We set a 50% target for the Programme Management Team and the Research Advisory Panel composition.

We considered barriers for participation and made reasonable adjustments to the recruitment, selection, governance and research process to remove these.


In designing the research process, we determined at the outset that all projects would need to identify and address barriers to participation throughout the process.

In all projects, where relevant, data is collected, analysed and disaggregated on the basis of gender to provide evidence to inform research and develop policy. We ensure that research projects identify and consult with women’s groups to reflect the perspectives of women. Researchers are also encouraged to explore a range of issues related to women and other marginalised groups through their research.

Unconscious bias

The ‘invisible mainframe’ of patriarchy means that best intentions are not enough. Patriarchy is deeply rooted. It is ingrained in us early and it frequently operates at an unconscious level.

Only through our collective tenacity and persistence will we be able to expose and remove this deeply rooted mainframe and enrich all of our work through the inclusion of all perspectives.

Our individual actions often seem small or trivial, but many such actions might just be what’s required to smash it.

This article was originally published in University World News.

Picture of Helen Fletcher-Kennedy

Chief Operating Officer
The Australia-Indonesia Centre

Picture of Eugene Sebastian

Executive Director
The Australia-Indonesia Centre

Picture of Martijn van der Kamp

Team Science Fellow
The Australia-Indonesia Centre