Squiggly lines, mountains, organised chaos or Forrest Gump.  What is the image of a geoscience career?

Tiddy, Caroline1; Andrahannadi, Upekha2,3; Perera, Sanjeewa2,3; Sardeshmukh, Shruti2,3

1Future Industries Institute, University of South Australia, , 5000, 2UniSA Business, University of South Australia, , 5000, 3Centre for Workplace Excellence (CWeX), University of South Australia, , 5005

Diversity at strategic levels is recognised as a key to improved organisational performance and innovation.  Diversity takes many forms.  Gender diversity (male and female for simplicity) is the focus of this research. 

STEM fields struggle with gender equality, with fewer women in senior roles (SAGE, 2019).  Geoscience is no exception.  More than 80% of the mining workforce is male, with even fewer women in leadership positions (WEGA, 2018).  In academia, 35.4% of Level A (Research Associate) and only 8.7% of Level E (Professor) academic appointments in Earth Sciences are female (ERA 2018 FoR 04:Earth Sciences).  Numerous organisations that undertake geoscience-related activities have taken steps to correct this imbalance.  Many have achieved Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) Athena SWAN Bronze Award Accreditation (https://www.sciencegenderequity.org.au/).  Senior male figures within geoscience-related organisations identify with the Male Champions of Change group who are committed to acting on gender inequality (https://malechampionsofchange.com/).

We present results of an interview-based study of 60 geoscientists from junior through senior levels from academia, government and industry and that provide insights into geoscientists’ career perceptions.  Perceptions are powerful and shape how we approach our careers, therefore gender differences in perceptions may explain underlying reasons for gender inequality.  Interviews examined participants’ career from undergraduate studies to their current position.  Towards the interview conclusion, respondents were asked to provide a visual metaphor (e.g., an image, movie or cartoon character) describing their career and then the career of the opposite gender.  Metaphors were used as they are a playful exercise that can provide structure and organisation to our perceptions of a complex topic; in this case perception of careers.

Data analysis highlights that irrespective of gender, geoscientists viewed their career as non-linear.  Women geoscientists’ career metaphors include dimensions of being challenging and incomplete (e.g., “squiggly line always moving forwards and progressing”; “a mountain and a little person not at the top”), whereas men often see their careers as being rewarding and having achieved (e.g. “Forrest Gump – not the smartest guy in the room but somehow always landed on his feet”; “spiralling nebular with kind of order… sort of a chaos…  But also, it’s all worked”).

Perceptions of the opposite gender are contrasting.  Women geoscientists often described male geoscientists’ careers as having overcome challenges, achieved a pinnacle and used dominating figures such as silverback gorillas and the Incredible Hulk.  Ideologies with negative connotations were expressed in some perceptions with women describing men as being within a “boys’ club” or as “old, white men with a beard”.  Male geoscientists described women as “starting to find their voice”, “not as appreciated” and “incredibly capable” where their career path is more challenging than that of a male (e.g. “uphill battle”, “getting over a big mountain”).

This study provides a spirited way to identify perceptual barriers to women in geosciences. The overt masculine perception of geosciences belies the broad range of positive experiences women geoscientists report. Our research goal is to identify enablers to women’s careers, which will help remove these perceptions and attract talented people to geoscience careers.


Caroline is geoscientist in the Future Industries Institute at the University of South Australia.  She is passionate about applied research that fundamentally impacts the geoscience industry and in developing the next generation of young, balanced scientists who will have the opportunity to engage in a workplace of equality and diversity.

About the GSA

The Geological Society of Australia was established as a non-profit organisation in 1952 to promote, advance and support Earth sciences in Australia.

As a broadly based professional society that aims to represent all Earth Science disciplines, the GSA attracts a wide diversity of members working in a similarly broad range of industries.