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4 March 2022 Speech

Hello everyone and my sincere thanks to UN Women Australia for the invitation to speak today. It is an absolute honour to speak alongside so many incredible women – I feel very humbled.

My name is Kirsten Rose, and I lead the Future Industries team at CSIRO – Australia’s National Science Agency.

I want to start by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land we’re meeting on, the Whadjuk people of the Noongar nation, and pay my respect to their Elders past and present.

I also want to acknowledge any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women joining us today, and the respect given to them in traditional Aboriginal culture as life givers.

Traditionally, Aboriginal women play significant economic, religious, and political roles, and decision-making power is determined based on the place or situation, rather than gender.

It never ceases to amaze me how much we have to learn from Aboriginal culture, but as the longest continuous living culture on the planet, it should come as no surprise.

It comes down to empowerment and valuing difference – two key themes we are discussing this year on International Women’s Day.

“Break the bias” asks us to “imagine a world where difference is valued and celebrated.”

The wonderful thing that resonates for me about this idea is the link to science and innovation.

At the national science agency, we know it’s our differences that spark the best questions, and the best questions create the best science.

The same men in blue suits who created the relatively recent past are unlikely to create a better future – we need diversity of thought, perspective, and experience to come up with solutions to our greatest challenges, like the gargantuan challenge of climate change.

I see science as a tremendous opportunity for the empowerment of women and girls in the context of climate change, not least because its impacts have a disproportionately negative effect on them for a variety of reasons.

But I also want to throw another word into the mix today – intersectionality – the idea that there are many aspects to identity, and they can all impact equality.

Factors like ethnicity or sexuality, socioeconomic background, age or religious beliefs can overlap with gender to create layers of bias.

So, when we champion difference, we need to look deeper than gender alone to empower female voices of all backgrounds and beliefs, because they are not all heard equally in our society, but they all have unique and valuable contributions to make on the journey to mitigate climate change.

Scene setting

So, with that context, let me set the scene here. As with any scientific process, we start by defining the problem, before we create our hypothesis.

The statistics have been well covered by others today, so I’m going to skip to the summary:

Climate change is disproportionately affecting women and girls and exacerbating barriers to their empowerment through educationand we need them.

Countries with female political leadership adopt more stringent climate change policies, resulting in lower emissions. We need women leaders in national parliaments to act more strongly to mitigate climate change, and we need their contributions to science and innovation.

Empowerment through education – and particularly in STEM subjects – is a mighty tool for women and girls, and we need to take dedicated action to make sure that opportunity is available to our girls dealing with layers of challenges.

Again, that idea of intersectionality, and I’ll come back to what CSIRO is doing in this area later.

But critically, I want to stress here that you don’t need to be a scientist or an engineer to work in STEM, or indeed be empowered to contribute on climate change.

There are a limitless number of skills needed to support this, and we all have something to contribute, no matter where our interests or talents lie.
I’m proof of this, and there’s a little story behind that.

Why I do what I do

I remember it vividly. I was sitting around my kitchen table with my mothers group.

I’d moved to Australia after having a successful career in strategy and consulting and had taken a career break to have kids.

So, there we were, babies on our knees, and I launched into one of my monologues about what I’m passionate about – issues of climate change, energy transition, and sustainability.

They stopped me and said, “stop lecturing us and find someone to pay you to do this for a job!”

It was a wake-up call for me. I had a genuine career epiphany: this is what I care about more than anything.

Then I went through a process – what needs to be done to make a difference, what skills do I have, and how do I marry those things up?

After that I started my own business working in sustainability and built a career around that.

That’s why I’m at CSIRO, leading the sustainable development of the future industries that will secure Australia’s prosperity and environmental resilience, and I have those mums to thank for the push.

The hypothesis

So, we’ve defined the opportunity and the problem. We’re coming now to the hypothesis, which is this: diversity is the compass to navigate innovation, and solve our greatest challenges.

We’ve been testing this idea for many years already at CSIRO and working hard to get more women into leadership positions.

Today we have gender balance at the Board and Executive level, and women in leadership at all levels across CSIRO is sitting just under 40 per cent, just shy of our overall gender diversity of 42 per cent.

We have more work to do to lift diversity within our science leadership teams, and to lift diversity in every dimension across the organisation, but the progress we’ve made has had a real and measurable impact.

It’s no coincidence that our business performance, revenue growth, impact delivery, and public trust have all grown along with our diversity – it’s our diversity that’s driving our innovation.

The power of role models

One of the things we’re working on is attracting more women into research roles, which today are male dominated at CSIRO with only 34 per cent filled by women.

This is a trend reflected in the broader STEM sector, and part of this issue goes back to the women role models we show our girls.

Dr Cathy Foley, Australia’s Chief Scientist and an amazing role model herself, tells a great story about this – about Kylie Minogue’s character on Neighbours in the mid-1980’s becoming a motor mechanic, and the corresponding spike in women enrolling in associated TAFE courses.

This was probably a short-lived trend, but it is illustrative. When we show girls someone relatable who they can aspire to be like, someone in whose footsteps they can follow, they can more easily imagine a future in that role.

There are so many incredible women leaders at CSIRO making a difference on climate – from working on the sustainable development of our oceans to innovating in energy, biodiversity, or drought-resistant agriculture.

I can’t mention them all, but I want to tell a story about one of our students, which also speaks to the issue of intersectionality and the enormous amount we have to learn from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture.

Hannah McCleary is a proud Palawa woman from nipaluna country in Hobart. She completed a CSIRO Aboriginal Summer School for Science in Year 10 and is now studying a combined Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Law degree at the University of Tasmania.

She was inspired by others who understood her experience as a young Aboriginal person interested in STEM, and now as part of her cadetship with CSIRO, she wants to inspire other young Indigenous women to study science.

She’s on the committee that manages the CSIRO Indigenous Time at Sea Scholarship, which gives Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander university students the opportunity to join a research voyage on CSIRO’s RV Investigator vessel.

As a student, that’s the type of experience you never forget. The type of experience that can set you on a path.

When young Indigenous women see Hannah, they see themselves, and footsteps they can follow.

The impact of that is incredibly powerful, both for those girls and for the elevation of Indigenous-led science, which is something we’re working on at CSIRO.

What can you do?

As you’ve heard from my story and from Hannah’s story, there are so many ways you can bring your skills to help address both equality and climate change.

At the national science agency, we work from the impossibly micro up to the massively macro. From micro-organisms in soils or marine ecosystems right up to large-scale climate data modelling.

There are so many ways you can apply your skills, and we need every single bit of that. We need everyone – all genders, backgrounds, and races – working together on this problem.

It is the ultimate test of the hypothesis I shared earlier, but when we do it, I firmly believe it will be our differences that lead us to the innovations and solutions we need.

I will leave you here with the words of the Year 10 students who recently participated in the CSIRO Young Indigenous Women's STEM Academy – an inspiring group of girls following in Hannah’s footsteps, and leaving more behind them for others to follow.

Their final message to other young women was: “Be brave. Ask for help. Reach for the stars. You are deadly!”

Thank you.

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