I’m no stranger to tackling sexism in science. From 2004 to 2010, I led a programme to diversify the Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University in Palisades, New York, by changing its culture. When I started, only two members of Lamont’s teaching faculty were women — less than 10%. Today, more than half of faculty members are women.

For the past five months, I’ve been a visiting scientist as the Fulbright distinguished chair in science, technology and innovation at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia’s national science agency in Hobart. One of my goals was to share evidence-based practices to diversify scientific workplaces.

In April, a scathing report revealed gender inequity, bullying and sexual harassment in the Australian Antarctic Division. Three days after its release, tears filled people’s eyes during my talk on fostering culture change in polar research when I spoke of the need to fix the system, not the women.

To advance gender equity in science, Australia — like every country — needs a broad, well-funded federal programme that implements evidence-based approaches, supports the selection of scientific leaders committed to diversity and builds in accountability. I can’t say exactly what the solution will be because it must be grounded in the realities of the Australian system, as ours was at Lamont. I am sure it will take time, so long-term funding and patience will be crucial.

Female scientists in Australia have shared stories of bullying, harassment, bias and unwelcoming cultures, of being passed over for leadership roles, of having ideas stolen or being told that sexism is just part of the process. Male leaders tell stories of their paths to success through old boys’ networks without acknowledging that such a path is inaccessible to many. According to a 2019 report by the Champions of Change Coalition, an Australia-based group of leaders advancing gender equity, 66% of women in Australian science have had their voices devalued. Nearly half the respondents to another 2019 survey have been sexually harassed.

I’m an outsider — I don’t know more about Australian science than do those who have been there for years. What I do know is what worked at Lamont, and it wasn’t necessarily what we expected.

First, having money gave us credibility. The US National Science Foundation has invested more than US$270 million through its ADVANCE programme, targeting institutional change. This financial commitment has changed the culture at more than 170 institutions, including Lamont, and produced a large cadre of diversity champions, a body of knowledge on institutional change and leaders versed in evidence-based practices.

Second, it took time. This work is difficult and slow. Institutional change was harder than running any Antarctic field programme I’ve ever led. After the first five years I thought we had failed, but, after another five, we had placed women in academic leadership positions all over the country. Implementing a visiting fellowship for women has helped us hire prominent female scholars. Maureen Raymo became Lamont’s first female director in 2020.

Third, each institution needs to identify its specific problems and design its own equitable future, empowered by the knowledge that diversity matters. Before we analysed our system, I was convinced that childcare during fieldwork was one of our biggest stumbling blocks for gender equity because of the trouble I had had earlier in my career, but fieldwork wasn’t one of the most important issues. We found that making sure that women attended meetings and launched workshops — so the community could see them as intellectual leaders — was more important.

Some Australian organizations have been putting in the hard work, time and money necessary to shift the needle on gender equity. For example, in 2013, none of the senior leaders of the government agency Geoscience Australia was a woman, and it feared that its rising female stars would leave if they could not see themselves thriving if the environment was perceived as hostile and male-dominated. Insights from a cultural audit allowed Geoscience Australia to confront embedded biases and get all of its staff members to define what an inclusive workplace would look like. Now, nearly half the senior leaders are female. Diversity is not a side note but is crucial to everything in the agency’s strategic plan.

Such efforts to change the culture should be replicated and robustly funded elsewhere. This will require leadership, money and patience. Change efforts should be connected, not fragmented, so that people can support and learn from each other, and accountability should have teeth. Australian national-science leaders need to speak up about how important an inclusive culture is to retain research talent.

A place to start implementing a well-funded federal programme could be the current review by the Australian Department of Industry, Science and Resources of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics programmes. This began in October 2022 and draft recommendations are due in July, with final recommendations expected in October. Another hopeful sign is that the recently passed Respect@Work legislation requires employers to be proactive in preventing to prevent sexual harassment and discrimination.

Through investment and accountability, any country can make science a place where women can thrive.