Tag Archives: unconscious bias

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.

industry-school partnerships

Industry engagement must start at school

Robotics, artificial intelligence, advanced materials and biotechnology will impact business models from 2018 and employment in engineering, architecture, IT and maths is on the rise. Currently women are significantly underrepresented in these jobs. 

Schools have a major role in promoting female participation in the STEM workforce. The challenge for schools and educators is to help female students understand this new environment and evolve the skills and resilience to operate in the future STEM landscape.

So how can we support female students to pursue STEM careers?

Provide opportunities

A major challenge for schools exists around resourcing and updating teacher knowledge. The Victorian Department of Education established six specialist science and mathematics centres to help schools inspire students in STEM through student programs and teacher professional learning.

These specialist centres collaborate with research institutes and industry to showcase Victorian innovation and entrepreneurial pursuits in STEM. Providing access to research-grade technologies and expertise immerses teachers and students in contemporary science investigations.  It helps girls visualise new STEM pathways and ignites their interest in pursuing studies in science.


“Industry and research institutions can play a pivotal role in supporting schools to bridge the divide between STEM in practice, and STEM in the classroom.”


Enhance motivation

What motivates a female student to engage with STEM? At the very core our answer should include interest and relevance. Relevance showcases how skills and knowledge apply to the world around us. Interest is maintained when students understand and can actively use new skills and knowledge to analyse results, solve problems and discuss issues.

A student will quickly disengage if they do not experience success. A series of sequenced challenges designed to activate thinking and the linking of ideas to create new knowledge supports students to take risks and develop and test theories.

Promote dialogue and skills of negotiation

Girls enjoy learning as a social and collaborative exercise. In this way they can hold meaningful discourse as they interrogate ideas. Providing learning spaces that promote social interaction around artefacts provides a non-threatening method of testing ideas and refining knowledge.

Raise aspirations

Industries want to increase female participation in the workforce as this promotes diversity and has been shown to improve outcomes. Cited barriers to hiring and promoting women include unconscious bias in managers and women’s low confidence and aspirations.

industry-school partnerships
Credit: Future of Jobs Report, World Economic Forum

We all harbour learned stereotypes that are encultured in us and affect decisions. Meeting and collaborating with early and established female career scientists has a positive impact on women’s aspirations. It helps to break down misconceptions surrounding the role of scientists by highlighting the convergence of STEM where collaboration – rather than competition – is key.

Industry and research institutions can play a pivotal role in supporting schools to bridge the divide between STEM in practice, and STEM in the classroom. By partnering with schools to develop meaningful and relevant learning experiences for students, enriched by access to facilities, resources, technologies and expertise, students realise how exciting and diverse a career in STEM can be.

By communicating the need for gender diversity and nurturing STEM skills that will be most valued in the workforce, we can help raise female aspirations as they reflect on subject choice in their senior years.

Jacinta Duncan

Director, Gene Technology Access Centre

Read next: Captain Mona Shindy describes her journey as a pioneer in the Royal Australian Navy.

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 industry-school partnerships 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.

Why do women leave STEM careers?

Why is the subject of Women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) so important right now?  To answer this, it might be useful to analyse the issue on two levels: national and personal.

At the national level

Australia needs far more young people taking up careers in STEM. According to our Prime Minister, 75% of our fastest-growing industries require skills in STEM.  But women are greatly underrepresented in this sector. Hence the Australian Government’s new Women in STEM and Entrepreneurship grant program, which commits $8 million to encourage women to choose and develop a STEM career.

There are other national programs now running to increase the numbers of women in STEM. For example:

Unfortunately, the engineering profession has been slow to promote the excitement and opportunities for men and women who choose engineering careers. Engineers typically focus on solving problems and improving everyone’s quality of life, rather than promoting their own profession. The catchy video clip Your World. Made by Engineers. sponsored by eight universities and Engineers Australia should be shown to all school students, careers counsellors, teachers and parents.

At the personal level

Women are just as ambitious and competent as men in STEM. Their under-representation in the sector has a number of causes. One obvious one is that too few girls choose science and maths subjects at school, thereby preventing them from later choosing a career in STEM. But the sector also suffers from too many women leaving STEM careers early. Research on this subject shows that women leave for a multiplicity of reasons:

  • hostility in the workplace;
  • isolation associated with being the only woman in a team;
  • difference in work styles between men and women;
  • inflexible and long working hours;
  • lack of career advancement;
  • lack of self-confidence.

A current topic in the gender space is unconscious bias. This is a less obvious reason for too few women in STEM and women leaving STEM careers. There is no doubt that women in academia and business suffer from people with both unintentional (unconscious) and deliberate (conscious) gender bias, and the common misunderstanding that unconscious bias training eliminates this bias is unfortunate. The reality is that such training is useful, but is only the first step to managers and staff members making less biased decisions about their people.

Read more about why we need to come to terms with unconscious bias here.

Dr Mark Toner

Chair of ATSE’s Gender Equality Working Group and Consultant at Gender Matters

Read next: Gemaker’s Dr Julie Wheway explains why you’re biased but don’t know it (and how to fix it).

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 leaving STEm careers 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.

unconscious bias

Bias, both conscious and unconscious

It’s hard to believe that, in 2016, there is still a chronic underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) at senior levels. It’s recognised that family constraints, perceived lack of promotion opportunities, lack of mentorship and culture play a huge part. But to what degree does bias – often unconscious bias – inhibit women’s progress in STEM?

Unconscious bias refers to a bias we’re unaware of, which happens automatically, and is triggered by our brain making quick assessments of people and situations. Unconscious bias is influenced by our own background, cultural environment and personal experiences.

Everyone has subconscious biases, including you. They are simply the brain’s way of coping with and categorising all the information we receive every day. Our tendency to discriminate against a group or type of person may not be intentional, but we can do something to change it.

Science suffers from a perception of masculinity

In STEM, there is often an association of science with maleness, and scientists with masculinity. A quick Google Images search for ‘scientist’ yields many more pictures of men in lab coats than women. We’ve all been to conferences with all-male panels, and entire sessions with only male speakers. These messages and experiences at the back of our brain influence our decisions, and we don’t even know it.

Studies have shown that male students are more likely than female students to underestimate the strengths of their female classmates, despite similar grades. This bias against women can follow individuals from the classroom to the workplace. In research meetings, it’s sometimes assumed women are there in an administrative capacity, rather than being highly skilled, PhD-qualified researchers. My own sister, who has a PhD in machine learning and statistics, is often asked by men at conferences, “How comfortable are you with mathematics?”

So how can we improve things? It’s heartening to hear that the Australian Research Council has announced in their new gender equality action plan, which involves appointing more women to the grant application review committee. They’re also considering measures to help panellists become more aware of unconscious bias. In the US, some universities run programs on unconscious bias as a professional development opportunity for graduate students.

Five ways to fight unconscious bias

If you’re reading this – male or female – you can help by taking the following steps:

  1. Be aware

Recognise that bias exists – we all have it!

  1. Learn more

Learn about your implicit bias by taking the implicit association test (IAT).

  1. Take steps to address biases

If you find you have biases (most people do), address them. Actively learning more about female scientists and engineers, and having positive images of women in science in your workplace, classroom or home can help to ‘reset’ your biases.

  1. Call it out

If you’re at a conference devoid of women as speakers or panel members, say something. Ask why there is so little female representation.

  1. Showcase talented female scientists

The idea that merit is compromised if gender is considered is still a huge barrier to progress. There are so many amazing female scientists out there – we just need to give them platforms to be heard.

Dr Julie Wheway

Manager, Strategic Engagement, gemaker

Read next: Head of the School of Computer Science at the University of Adelaide, Katrina Falkner, reveals why Australia is on the verge of change for women in technology.

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 unconscious bias 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.

ICT

On the cusp of mass cultural change

The Australian Computer Society has estimated that an additional 100,000 new information and communications technology (ICT) professionals will be needed in Australia over the next five years alone. While this industry continues to grow and impact upon the Australian economy, only 2.8% of females choose ICT as their field.

In my role as head of the School of Computer Science at the University of Adelaide, I hear every year from young women who have been told by someone important in their lives – perhaps a teacher, a family member or a careers counsellor – that computer science is not a job that women do. However, we know that companies with strong gender diversity are more likely to be successful and have higher financial returns. We need to broaden participation in creating and driving technology innovation in our country so that it is reflective of the diverse perspectives and voices that represent our community.

How can we address this gender imbalance within ICT? I believe that the answer lies in our new Australian curriculum and in increasing support for our education system.

Australia is on the verge of a significant change – all Australian students will soon be learning the fundamental concepts of computer science, and will move from being users of technology to creators of their own technology. This is an incredible opportunity for us as a nation to change our culture for women in technology, and more broadly, women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

Changing stereotypes in STEM on screen

Children start forming their views on what careers are, and whether they are for a man or a woman, from an early age. These views are reinforced by messages from all directions. Very few family films show women in positions of power, or with active careers; only 45% of females in family films are shown to have careers, while STEM male roles outnumber STEM female roles by five to one.

These unconscious biases impact how we, and our children, develop our understanding of who we are, and who we can be. We urgently need to address this if we are to see the diverse technology community that we need.

Connecting STEM professionals with schools

Australian teachers need ongoing support from our industry and university sectors. We need to collectively engage with our schools to help teachers understand and guide technology creation.

Programs such as CSIRO’s Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools program, FIRST Australia and Code Club Australia, among others, provide valuable opportunities to volunteer and support your local communities in understanding STEM. These programs help explore the amazing ability of technology to solve community problems, and work to engage our students. All of our students.

Associate Professor Katrina Falkner

Head of School of Computer Science, University of Adelaide

Read next: The University of Newcastle’s Dr Nikola Bowden addresses misconceptions about the biggest issues for 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 women in ICT 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.

gender equity

Gender equity through Athena SWAN

Featured image above: Dr Susan Pond speaking about gender equity at the 2016 SAGE Symposium. Credit: Australian Academy of Science

Led as a joint venture by the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) and the Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE), Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) is conducting an Australian pilot of the UK’s Athena SWAN Charter.

SAGE works towards a vision that women and men will be equally represented in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics & medicine) disciplines in our higher education and research organisations, including in leadership roles.

Despite the fact that higher education enrolments by gender in Australia reached parity in 1988, the percentage of women gaining the rank of full professor in most faculties has remained consistently below 20% to the current day.

This failure to achieve gender equity matters because the Australian higher education and research sectors are:

  • leaking female talent;
  • wasting some of their best people;
  • failing to benefit from the additional range of perspectives and backgrounds they would bring to the table; and
  • losing the opportunity to perform better.

It matters because gender equity is a moral and business imperative. It matters because of the challenge of innovation.

Key to Australia’s economic competitiveness and growth, innovation requires an increasing national proficiency in STEMM. Innovation will be driven by the ability of our higher education and research institutes to generate breakthrough ideas and produce excellent STEMM graduates. It will be driven by the ability of these graduates to translate breakthrough ideas into innovative products and services.

SAGE has adopted the Athena SWAN Charter because it provides a rigorous, system-wide process of gender equity data collection, evaluation and consultation in order to identify the gaps between policies and practices and establish detailed action plans for change.

It requires institutions to demonstrate in their Athena SWAN Award application that they have undertaken and acted upon honest self-appraisal and self-reflection, starting at the leadership level.

The process is transparent – all applications for an Athena SWAN award are made public.

To ensure integrity and rigour, and to assess how Athena SWAN might boost productivity and outcomes in the Australian STEMM landscape, the SAGE Pilot will:

  • commission an independent evaluation of the Pilot;
  • adapt and tailor the Athena SWAN framework to the Australian context;
  • focus on Australian-specific areas such as Indigenous Australians in STEMM;
  • use analytics on pooled data to design informed and evidence-based solutions;
  • identify issues in gender equity that are common across institutions and require policy change across the sector; and
  • through the peer-review process, identify and document best practices that are shown to be working in STEMM.

SAGE and the Athena SWAN pilot in Australia are good news stories.

The bad news is that the widespread resistance to women pursuing careers is longstanding. The feminist, Betty Friedan, whose 1963 book “The Feminine Mystique” changed the lives of many women in the US and worldwide, framed this as “The Problem that has No Name.”

The bad news is that gender discrimination in society is not necessarily intentional or overt. It is unconscious and deeply ingrained in our societal psyche. It flourishes under the radar and is very hard to overturn.

Such discrimination emerges in strange circumstances – for example when women act in ways that aren’t considered sufficiently feminine, or when women advocate for themselves.

Men and women in large part unconsciously find these women unseemly; find them overly demanding and unlikeable.

Hillary Clinton, as an example, is suffering this curse of unlikeability. Scholars agree that it is largely because of her gender.

As Rebecca Sheehan from the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney wrote recently, “Clinton’s ratings dropped significantly each time she sought political power through electoral office – whether running for US Senate or presidency.

“However, once she achieved positions of power, her approval ratings increased. As Secretary of State, she had an approval rating of 66% (a number Obama himself never reached), and was arguably the most respected politician in the US.

“Now, more than half the country can’t stand her.

“The swings in opinion and their timing suggest that her apparent likeability problem is not only – or not actually – about her. Instead, it’s more about a broader dislike of women who challenge the traditional gender order.”

In her just-released book, What Works – Gender Equality by Design, Professor Iris Bohnet addresses head on how such unconscious bias holds us back in achieving gender equity and why de-biasing each and every individual’s mind has proven to be difficult and expensive.

Bohnet’s emphasis is on de-biasing organisations instead of individuals, as is that of Athena SWAN. She demonstrates that taking this approach has great impact, often at surprisingly low cost and high speed. This is where the Athena SWAN Charter comes to the fore.

Athena SWAN seeks to call out gender inequality by providing evidence for its existence and negative impacts. Athena SWAN seeks to design out from our universities and research organisations the systems that entrench the status quo of gender inequality.

We must work together, men and women, to ensure that Australia’s universities, research organisations and innovation systems can take advantage of our full talent pool.

– Dr Susan Pond AM, FTSE FAHMS

This article is an edited extract from Dr Susan Pond’s speech presented at the 2016 Science in Australia Gender Equity Symposium.