Opening of the Kathleen Curtis Atrium

  • Hon Dr Megan Woods
Research, Science and Innovation

Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā tatou, katoa.

It is my honour to attend this event and be part of this celebration of women in science. I would first like to thank the organiser, the University of Auckland Faculty of Science, for organising this event.

We are here to celebrate women in science and in particular we acknowledge the contributions of Dr Kathleen Curtis - a world-class scientists and trailblazer who actively pursued equality for women.

Many significant scientific developments by women have gone unrecognised throughout history. So the opening of this Atrium which bears the name of one of New Zealand’s pioneering female scientists is an important sign of how far we have come.     

I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the progress that has been made. Dr Curtis was the first woman fellow of the Royal Society elected in 1936. 80 years have passed and today she would find herself in good company.

In 2018, 11 of the 20 new Fellows elected were women. I have no doubt that Dr Curtis has helped paved the way for these women and other women in science to get the recognition that they most certainly deserve.

There are some wonderful initiatives such as the Curious Minds programme that are positively influencing girls’ and young women's subject choices and increasing their participation in STEM.

Today in New Zealand we can be proud that we have seen a consistent trend since 2008 of parity between the number of male and female doctoral degree graduates. We are making progress to close the gender pay gap and we rank among the top nations on gender equality.

But we’re not doing enough. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment estimates women make up just 32% of the scientific workforces, and that Māori and Pasifika combined make up less than 2% of the scientific workforce.

Increasing the representation of women and minority groups in science is important for social justice and fairness.

In addition, having equal gender representation in leadership could be worth as much as $800m to the New Zealand economy. This in itself presents a strong rationale for addressing these issues.

But the case for increasing diversity in science goes well beyond money. There is growing body of evidence that tells us that diversity leads to greater creativity, innovation and productivity with the potential to improve the quality of research and the relevance of outcomes for society.

Higher female participation in teams can help to overcome biases, ensure more equal participation and broaden viewpoints which can in turn, spark new discoveries.

Moreover, a representative scientific workforce is more likely to pursue solutions that put the long-term wellbeing of the New Zealand people and our environment at its centre.

Much progress has been made however these efforts have not yet translated into equal representation of women in senior STEM positions.

Careers for women in science often progress more slowly, stall more often and are more likely to be discontinued. The reasons for this are complex but include amongst other things unconscious bias and a lack of support for family responsibilities.

Earlier this year I launched new measures to increase diversity in New Zealand’s science system and published the MBIE Diversity in Science Statement.

I am a strong believer that you can’t change what you don’t measure. And that is why our starting point is to create more transparency and accountability about who is receiving science funding from government.

I will continue to work with my officials to understand how best to support, encourage and contribute to the development of women and other under-represented groups who are, or aspire in the future to be the next research leaders.

There is no silver bullet but there are actions that we can all take to shine a light on inequities in the science system and to identify and support initiatives that promote greater equity, diversity and inclusion.

And that is why I would personally like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the wonderful work that the University of Auckland has been doing to make this a safe, inclusive and equitable place to study and work.

I welcome your transparency by committing to publish an annual report which shows what progress you are making. You are setting an example that I hope others will follow.

Back to the task at hand. It is my pleasure and honour tonight to formally open the Kathleen Curtis Atrium.

Dr Curtis was not only a pioneer in the field of botany but an inspiration to the women scientists who came after her. Today we honour her work and support future generations of women to be at the forefront of scientific achievements.

So without further ado I would like to officially open the atrium and unveil this plaque which records the life and works of Dr Curtis so that she will be remembered and continue to provide inspiration for many generations to come.

Thank you.