While the gender distribution of tertiary qualifications differs by field, women continue to be under-represented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths), both in Australia and globally. Hannah Adler asks some of the country’s leading female academics what it’s like to be a woman in cannabis. 

As of 2016, only 17% of the STEM-qualified population in Australia were women, leading the government to launch its “Advancing women in STEM strategy”, and according to UNESCO data, only 30% of the world’s researchers are women

While cannabis research is a newer area of research in Australia, academia in general remains a very male-dominated field, according to Southern Cross University clinical research fellow Dr Janet Schloss.

Dr Schloss started researching cannabis around seven years ago through her interest in oncology. She has been involved in a number of clinical trials, including research on glioblastoma and cannabis. She is now conducting a trial on CBD and sleep and developing one for CBD as a Schedule 3 drug. 

Reflecting on her experience as a woman doing her doctorate in the male-dominated field of STEM, she said: “Doing my PhD in the school of medicine, with male supervisors, was definitely an interesting experience. As a woman, you have to harden up, be tougher to survive. In some ways, it taught me to stand up to men in that field. It also taught me that to survive, you treat everyone equally. No matter their position, you treat them with respect.”

But things are changing and Dr Schloss welcomed the fact that so many women are now progressing through the ranks. 

Southern Cross University clinical research fellow Dr Janet Schloss

“In my last two academic positions, I have been very lucky to be surrounded by women who are strong, compassionate, innovative, supportive, respectful and have forged the way,” she said. “This is very inspiring and has been a great motivator for me.”

While Dr Schloss acknowledged the science community is largely male, she said the cannabis sector is more supportive of women in the field. 

“It’s not an easy road, but what I have found is that the males involved in cannabis/STEM research are more open and supportive in incorporating women. We are seen as equals, which is very different to other academic and medical worlds. This builds a great culture and environment, but more women are required to be involved.

“I definitely feel that will happen as they are accepted and encouraged. It doesn’t mean it’s easy as there is still the old patriarchy involved in academia, big business, pharmacy and medicine. But I do see this starting to change.” 

Sharing that sentiment is University of Newcastle Professor Jennifer Martin, who is involved in cannabis research via pharmacology/drug development, clinical trials and care. 

Professor Martin said the gender disparity is much better now compared to 20 years ago, when female professors were very rare. According to Catalyst, as of 2018, 33.9% of positions above senior lecturer (such as professor) were held by women in Australia. 

University of Newcastle Professor Jennifer Martin

Despite this, she maintained women in the research space still need to work harder than men to prove themselves and the value of their work. 

“I have just accepted that our team needs to be more accomplished than others to get the same support,” she said. “We still need to over deliver to get even partially equal support.”

While things are changing, Professor Martin said there is still a dominant male culture in STEM, exemplified by men holding leadership positions, the size and location of offices, the number of support staff allocated and who gets invited to speak at international events. 

She added: “There’s still significant cognitive bias in supporting women, and particularly women of colour. We could do a lot more in Australia to improve our research output by focusing on merit and quality. Even just focussing on track record would help.

“Being a woman in STEM is important, I make positive decisions to encourage female researchers and try to role model important behaviours. We have to call out the old behaviours when we have opportunities, otherwise some people are just not aware. 

“However, calling it out can make it difficult — not everyone likes to be made aware of a decision that is not the best because they have chosen based on reasons other than merit and quality. 

“But as a senior woman in the field, unless women like me call it out and model the right behaviours, then it’s going to be yet another generation until we have equal opportunities.”

Lambert Initiative postdoctoral research associate Dr Elizabeth Cairns

This positive behaviour from senior female academics in the cannabis field has trickled down, creating a more supportive environment for a new generation of women entering academia, according to Lambert Initiative postdoctoral research associate Dr Elizabeth Cairns.

Dr Cairns, who completed her PhD at Dalhousie University in Canada, said she was “raised” in the science world by two incredible women. 

“First, by Professor Vianne Timmons when I was an undergraduate research assistant, who is now the vice chancellor of Memorial University in Canada. Then by Professor Melanie Kelly, who now, on top of her research and teaching work, is also executive director of the International Cannabinoid Research Society. 

“Having this background, I’ve been lucky in never questioning my voice or seat at the table, and I try to do what I can to make sure others can get the same type of role models I had.

“Academia in general appears to be male dominated, but it doesn’t seem to necessarily be this way in cannabinoid research, with lots of female researchers being major players in its development. The younger generation of scientists (of all genders) is really fortunate to have this incredible group of women to look up to.”

As a non-Australian, however, she was still surprised at the research culture when she first arrived in the country. 

“I was quite taken aback by what I saw here — some “Bros Club” behaviour and not-so-subtle misogyny. It was quite eye opening, and I still occasionally see that type of behaviour.

“Representation matters. The cannabinoid research field is very lucky to have such a group of successful women to look up to. I do think we could improve things here in Australia, though, by having more females in visible senior roles.”

Lambert Initiative clinical research officer and PhD student Anastasia Suraev

Also from The Lambert Initiative are postdoctoral research associate Dr Danielle McCartney and clinical research officer and PhD student Anastasia Suraev, both of whom are involved in fields within STEM that have greater female representation. 

Dr McCartney, whose research is focused on cannabis and driving performance and CBD’s effects within the context of sport and exercise, said while academia is male dominated, the gender balance varies from one discipline to the next. 

Her PhD, for example, is in the female-dominated field of nutrition and dietetics. 

Similarly to Drs Cairns and McCartney, Suraev, who researches the effects of cannabinoids on chronic insomnia disorder, said her experience in academia has been less male dominated.

She added: “Having a psychology background (a somewhat female-dominated field of science), I was lucky to be surrounded by several amazing female role models who encouraged me to take smart risks and seek out new opportunities. 

“As a young scientist, it was inspiring to see highly successful women – professors, heads of school, CEOs – who looked and acted like me succeed in areas I was interested in.

“It spurred my ambition and encouraged me to follow suit. I feel that I have a responsibility to provide the same support and mentorship that I received to new students coming into the STEM and cannabis research field.”

Suraev said although cannabinoid research is unprecedented in terms of its growth in such a short time span, it remains in its infancy, creating “a great opportunity for women to be at the forefront, shaping the science and taking on leadership positions in both academia and the industry”.

Hannah Adler

Hannah is a communications professional and early-career researcher in the disciplines of health communication and health sociology. She is a PhD student at Griffith University currently writing a...