Tag Archives: Tanya Monro

women in STEM

Everywoman: the modern scientist

I’ve always been a strong proponent and active promoter of women in all fields of endeavour, but for about a decade now my focus has been on promoting the stories of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). So I was somewhat horrified when I took a Harvard University-designed online test designed to detect unconscious gender bias in STEM and found that, when it came to science and technology, I very slightly and subconsciously favoured men.

How could this be? Deep-seated societal programming and a lifetime of hearing ‘he’ as the default is very difficult to undo. Children’s toys and characters in books are often automatically ‘he’: we have to think twice to designate a character as ‘she’. Growing up surrounded by assumptions, words and images that constantly reinforce gender stereotypes, we have our work cut out for us. And when it comes to STEM, those stereotypes are so embedded that even people like me, who actively work against gender stereotypes, unconsciously assume scientists are men.

That’s a tough thing to admit, but I believe it’s important. If I recognise the problem, I can start to do something about it.

There are many important and worthwhile programs aimed at changing the systemic barriers to the retention and advancement of women in STEM. I am so heartened by the rapidly growing volume of excellent work being done in this arena. It’s a significant and meaningful step towards building true equality.

As well as changing the systems in which we work, I believe we also must create new stereotypes. To do that, we need to significantly elevate the visibility of women in STEM, and in particular the visibility of heroines of STEM. We must tell our stories; we must tell them loudly, we must tell them often, and we must tell them in many different ways.


“Changing a stereotype can take generations, and different audiences respond to different story-telling techniques and platforms, so the more people telling success stories of women in STEM at all career stages, the merrier.”


I’m a woman in STEM, but I’m not a researcher or entrepreneur. Instead, my work is to support and elevate scientists and people working in technology. My background is in communication, and my focus has been to find and publicise our success stories. This is not an exclusive or competitive endeavour. Changing a stereotype can take generations, and different audiences respond to different storytelling techniques and platforms, so – as far as I’m concerned – the more people telling success stories of women in STEM at all career stages, the merrier.

We need children’s books featuring women engineers, scientists and technology gurus. We need to celebrate and include women in STEM on social media, in magazines, on daytime TV, on talkback radio, in soapies and the news. We need to see women equally represented on stage at public and private events. We need them on websites, in advertising, and on blogs.

I know the first reference source for many students is Wikipedia, so a few years ago I created the first ‘Women of Science Wikibomb’, with the dual purpose of increasing the (woefully low) percentage of women Wikipedia editors, and increasing the number of Australian women scientists celebrated with their own page on Wikipedia. About 150 science enthusiasts – most of them women – participated all over Australia. Between us, on a single day during National Science Week we created 117 new Wikipedia pages about Australian women scientists. The model has since been replicated by research institutions, museums, governments and big corporations, and the number of Australian women in STEM featured on Wikipedia continues to grow.

I’ve organised nationally broadcast women in STEM events at the National Press Club, supported an outstanding woman scientist to create a Boyer lecture series on Radio National, contributed to creating a national award for women in STEM, and created and produced more than 30 public events featuring women doing extraordinary and fascinating work across the breadth of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

I’ve also coordinated exclusive interviews in the news media and extensive social media campaigns highlighting the vast range of stories, work and motivations of Australian women in STEM at all levels. Science & Technology Australia will keep adding to that work, but it’s just a small drop in a very large ocean. We need lots and lots more drops (some fabulously clever woman could probably tell me exactly how many drops there are in any given ocean). We need to permanently dislodge the ‘pale, male, and stale’ STEM stereotype and recast the modern scientist as everywoman as well as everyman. We need to normalise the idea of women in STEM so completely that the unconscious bias test becomes obsolete.

The good news is, my nine-year-old daughter counts doctor and engineer among her career aspirations (along with rock star and veterinarian). And my 11-year-old son names among his role models geneticist Professor Suzanne Cory and physicist Professor Tanya Monro. Why? Because they’ve both met a number of women working in science and technology, including those two high-achieving professors. Because they have shelves full of books and games featuring women scientists, engineers and maths whizzes as lead characters. Because their parents routinely show them true stories featuring women working in STEM – as researchers, lab assistants, teachers, policy-makers, entrepreneurs and communicators. Because, for them, the stereotypical scientist is just as likely to be a woman as they are a man.

Kylie Walker

Chief Executive Officer, Science & Technology Australia

Read next: Pip Marlow, Managing Director of Microsoft Australia, on encouraging girls in STEM and the value of maths to future careers.

People and careers: Meet women who’ve paved brilliant careers in STEM here, find further success stories here and explore your own career options at postgradfutures.com.

Spread the word: Help Australian women achieve successful careers in STEM! Share this piece on women in STEM using the social media buttons below.

More Thought Leaders: Click here to go back to the Thought Leadership Series homepage, or start reading the Graduate Futures Thought Leadership Series here.

SAGE pilot

Men of history, women of the future

The modern disciplines and industries of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) have developed over centuries, from the natural philosophers of the Renaissance to the multi-billion dollar global enterprises of today. With only a few exceptions – Ada Lovelace, Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin among them – men have dominated the institutions of STEM, brought new technologies and innovations to market, and inevitably reaped the recognition and the rich and varied rewards.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the structures and processes that underpin STEM today have evolved in a way that strongly favour men. Reflecting on my own career, I well remember my surprise at being asked to change a regular Saturday morning departmental staff meeting to a time more compatible with the family responsibilities of some of my female colleagues. The request was eminently sensible, but such considerations were only just beginning to register with STEM leaders of the 1990s.

Fast-forward to 2016, and while many of the policies and procedures that support hiring and promotion practices have improved, there remain significant structural and cultural problems that need to be overcome.

There is a sharp and in some cases growing discrepancy in representation of women and men across the academic spectrum, with women holding more than 50% of junior positions across most STEM disciplines, but fewer than 20% of full professorships.

Professor Tanya Monro, Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of South Australia spoke on this issue with Professors Nalini Joshi and Emma Johnston at the National Press Club in March 2016. She described the ‘motherhood penalty’ that has been shown to affect income, career advancement and perceived competence relative to men and to women without children.

Catherine Osborne also spoke on the ABC Science Show about how the lack of flexibility and the short term nature of contracts offered to early and mid-career scientists – particularly women – forced her out of her chosen profession.

In an effort to address these issues, the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering joined forces in 2015 to launch the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) initiative that is piloting the Athena SWAN Charter; a UK-based accreditation framework that rewards universities and other research institutions on the basis of how much they do to improve gender equity in STEM.

Thirty of Australia’s 40 universities have now joined the SAGE pilot. So have a number of medical research institutes and research agencies, CSIRO among them. The Academies are grateful to the Australian Government for their support of this initiative through the National Innovation and Science Agenda.

However, the efforts to change the many structural barriers to gender equality in STEM are only the beginning. More insidious, and therefore more difficult to overcome, are the significant cultural norms and unconscious biases that affect day-to-day interactions between men and women working in STEM, as they do throughout society.

There is clearly much to be done. Forward thinking organisations are setting targets for achieving gender balance in senior STEM roles by 2025 or 2030. Between now and then, programs like the SAGE pilot, Male Champions of Change and the Panel Pledge will make a difference, but true change will require leadership and commitment from us all.

Professor Andrew Holmes AM

President, Australian Academy of Science

Read next: Dr Saraid Billiards of the NHMRC sheds light on funding reforms that are vital to the retention and progression of women in STEM.

People and careers: Meet women who’ve paved brilliant careers in STEM here, find further success stories here and explore your own career options at postgradfutures.com.

Spread the word: Help Australian women achieve successful careers in STEM! Share this piece on the SAGE pilot using the social media buttons below.

More Thought Leaders: Click here to go back to the Thought Leadership Series homepage, or start reading the Graduate Futures Thought Leadership Series here.