Australian cabinet reshuffle sparks dismay among researchers

Science minister’s replacement could curb momentum on women’s progress in STEM, critics fear

March 30, 2021
Parliament House, Canberra
Source: iStock

An Australian cabinet reshuffle triggered by outrage over Canberra’s allegedly misogynist culture has seen the object of protests installed as science minister, in a move seen by some researchers as potentially undermining efforts to attract more women into STEM.

The government hoped that the 29 March reshuffle would defuse community anger over allegations of sexual assault, harassment and lewd behaviour involving high-ranking ministers or their offices. Fury has focused on former attorney general Christian Porter, who is accused of a rape in 1988 – an allegation he strenuously denies – and former defence minister Linda Reynolds, whose one-time staffer Brittany Higgins says she was raped by a colleague in Ms Reynolds’ office two years ago.

Both ministers have now been demoted after taking leave amid the crisis. Ms Reynolds’ defence responsibilities have been handed to home affairs minister Peter Dutton, who has been replaced by the well-regarded industry and science minister Karen Andrews – leaving Mr Porter to take over her role.

Valedictory messages from science groups highlighted Ms Andrews’ commitment to women in STEM. “She has advocated strongly for increased women’s participation at all levels,” said the Academy of Technology and Engineering.

The Australian Academy of Science praised Ms Andrews “for advancing the recommendations of Australia’s 10-year plan for women in STEM”. Science and Technology Australia chief executive Misha Schubert lauded her for “personally championing programmes to tackle the under-representation of women in these crucial fields”.

The outgoing minister was feted on social media during the Science Meets Parliament gala dinner, in which she officiated, and she responded in kind. “As an engineer turned MP, it’s been an absolute privilege to serve in this role and introduce important measures, particularly to support women in STEM,” she tweeted.

No such warmth accompanied the Twitter response to Mr Porter’s appointment, with critics asking how giving the role to someone with “unresolved allegations of rape and poor behaviour towards women” would encourage their participation in STEM or alleviate concerns that career advancement mechanisms were stacked against them.

In comments reported by The Australian newspaper, Mr Porter did not address these criticisms but said that he looked forward to his new role. He said his focus as attorney general had been to keep Australians safe and prosperous during the pandemic, and these goals would guide his work in science.

The reshuffle comes less than a fortnight after new chief scientist Cathy Foley nominated diversity in science, engineering and technology – including more recruitment of women – as one of four “critical foundational issues” for her tenure.

Dr Foley told the National Press Club that women were disadvantaged by the emphasis on publications, the short-term nature of postgraduate jobs and the tendency for their careers to plateau in midlife. She urged female scientists to “make waves”.

“We’ve got to socialise our young women to feel empowered to say sexual harassment is not acceptable or to change the system to make sure [their work] is recognised. We have a minister for science [Ms Andrews] where this is a foundational gut thing for her, and we’re going to see something happen.”

Meanwhile former employment and skills minister Michaelia Cash, who has succeeded Mr Porter as attorney general, has been replaced by former government services minister Stuart Robert. While vocational training groups welcomed Mr Robert’s appointment, he has been criticised for his oversight of an automated debt recovery process that saw social security recipients wrongly charged more than A$1.1 billion (£610 million).

A press conference also heard that Mr Robert had resigned from a previous ministerial post over a breach of standards, accepted a luxury watch from a Chinese billionaire and given a parliamentary speech partly written by a property developer, among other missteps.

Prime minister Scott Morrison said that Mr Robert had been “appointed to this job because he’s done an outstanding job in the one that he’s been doing”. Mr Robert said his focus would be to “ensure everyone has the opportunity to get a job, train for a job or build a business”.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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