Thirty female scientists and technologists have been named the first Superstars of STEM – ready to smash stereotypes and forge a new generation of role models for young women and girls.
More than 300 applicants vied for a spot to be a Superstar, with the successful candidates to receive training and development to use social media, TV, radio and public speaking opportunities to carve out a more diverse face for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
Announced today by the Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Senator the Hon Arthur Sinodinos AO, the women will learn how to speak about their science and inspire others to consider a career in STEM.
Science & Technology Australia President-Elect, Professor Emma Johnston, said studies in the USA and other countries similar to Australia had shown female STEM professionals were significantly under-represented.
“Superstars of STEM is the first program of its kind and will prove vital for the future of STEM in Australia,” Professor Johnston said.
“Often when you ask someone to picture or draw a scientist, they will immediately think of an old man with white hair and a lab coat.
“We want Australian girls to realise that there are some amazing, capable and impressive women working as scientists and technologists too, and that they work in and out of the lab in places you might not expect,” she said.
“Science and technology have made our lives longer, happier, healthier and more connected – with more girls considering STEM careers, we have the potential to achieve so much more.”
Professor Johnston said the participants in this world-first program hailed from nearly every state and territory; from the public, academic and private sectors; and from all sorts of scientific and technological backgrounds.
“Participants are working in archaeology, robotics, medicine, cider research, pregnancy health, education, psychology and so much more,” she said.
“We have forensic scientists, biologists, mathematicians, agricultural scientists, neuroscientists, engineers, cancer researchers, ecologists, computer scientists, and chemists – just to name a few.”
Professor Johnston also acknowledged the support that will allow the program to thrive, including vital funding through the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science’s Women in STEM and Entrepreneurship grant program.
“We will be working to make sure you’ll be seeing many more women on your TV screens, hearing them on your radios, and reading about them online.”
“We also hope to support many more women in the years to come by extending Superstars of STEM beyond its pilot year. The universal popularity of the program in its inaugural year shows there is great interest for it to continue.”
The Superstars of STEM program will also include a mentoring component, designed to link participants with inspiring women in their sector who can provide insights into leadership in their field. Participants will also be required to share their stories at local High Schools to ensure they are connecting with young Australian women with an interest in STEM.
Of the final 30, 8 are from Victoria, 8 from New South Wales, 5 from South Australia, 5 from Queensland, 2 from Tasmania and 2 from the ACT. You can meet them by heading to the Superstars of STEM page.
Featured image: delegates make their way to meetings with members of Parliament at Science meets Parliament
Krystal, when you first attended Science meets Parliament (SmP), how did you prepare for your research pitch?
I first attended SmP in 2011, when I was a medical research scientist and a founding member of The Australian Early- and Mid-Career Researcher Forum. I had just been involved in the 2011 “Discoveries Need Dollars” campaign to protect medical research funding in Australia, and was keen to advocate not only for my research, but for the wider research sector.
The best way to prepare for any pitch is to know your audience. I was meeting with the Hon Judi Moylan, an MP from Western Australia, and so I researched her interests and background. I found that she was strong supporter of women’s issues and the diabetes community, and so was able to talk with her about the latest research in this area as well as ways to support women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).
It was also important for me to connect with the other SmP delegates who were going to be in the same meeting to understand their key messages and how we could align and support each other’s objectives. We wanted to make sure each of us got time to pitch our own individual areas, as well as giving a positive, cohesive message about the importance of funding, fellowships and support for the future of research in Australia more broadly.
Lastly, I took some prepared material with me to leave behind. Not a big long report, but a one-pager outlining some of the issues facing researchers in Australia and some policy recommendations and actions to address the issues. It is important to put forward solutions, not just focus on the problems; to provide ideas and a call to action on what needs to be done to build Australia’s science and research future.
Did it have the desired outcome? What would you do differently next time?
I have been so excited over the past six years to see the increased support for women in STEM and the rising awareness of the need to support early- and mid-career researchers, who are our future science leaders.
This has been achieved by the work of many, many people and organisations, and I have been proud to be one of those voices advocating for change.
It is so important that our leaders and decision makers hear from a diversity of people on issues, so never underestimate the power of your voice to be a part of positive change and science advocacy.
Describe your experience at Science meets Parliament. What did you think of the event?
Attending SmP was a key part of my professional development in terms of understanding the political process and how to engage with politicians. It was an insight into a whole new world of how decisions about science and research are made and when and how scientists can contribute to policy agendas.
It was also an amazing networking experience – make sure you bring plenty of business cards and if you don’t have some, get some! It was fantastic to meet politicians from all across the political spectrum, and also to connect with other SmP delegates.
The connections I made at SmP with delegates who were passionate about science communication and science advocacy have stayed with me throughout my career and have created many ongoing opportunities over the years.
What advice do you have for other researchers who are trying to turn their knowledge into action?
When communicating your message, think about it like storytelling – have a beginning, a middle and an end. To begin, outline the problem, the middle is what could be achieved if you address the problem, and the end is the call to action on what you want to see happen next.
Always have a clear “ask” on what you want the person you’re meeting with to do next – and be specific. If a Minister says, “I understand the problem – what do you think I should do about it?” you need to have a clear pathway for action.
It’s also important to talk about who benefits from your research and to make it relevant not only to politicians, but to the wider community in terms of what you are trying to achieve.
Be positive. Don’t just talk about the problem, talk about the solutions. In fact, make sure you spend more time putting forward ideas for action than repeating the issues.
Be creative – don’t just ask for more money. Politicians are always meeting with people asking for more funding for their area of interest, so you also need to be able to provide ideas on what can be done without increasing the spend. Perhaps it is a policy change, a reallocation of existing resources or a need to raise the profile and awareness of an issue. Make it personal and customised, so that the person you are meeting with has a clear sense of exactly what you are asking them to do next and how they can work with you to bring about change.
Be useful. Politicians are busy people, with limited time and resources. If you can be an expert advisor to them, a “scientist on call” to provide them with information, background and insights, then you can build a trusted and respected relationship.
What have been the major challenges in getting your science heard by policymakers in Australia, and how have you overcome them?
Nothing is more powerful than engaging with the public and being able to show policymakers that the community cares about your science as much as you do. Having support from those who will benefit from your research – whether they’re farmers, patients, industry or community groups – will always add weight to your messages.
Science is mostly paid for by taxpayers, so leveraging support from the broader community can boost your voice and help to get your message heard by policymakers.
How do you think the relationship between science and politics in Australia compares with other countries, and what lessons could we take from overseas?
I would love to see more internships, where scientists are embedded in politicians’ offices so that they can experience government processes first-hand and contribute their knowledge and analytical skills to policymaking.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science in the US has some incredible internship opportunities and I think Australia would benefit from schemes such as these. It would break down the barriers between science and politics, build greater understanding on both sides and create ongoing relationships between researchers and our elected representatives.
Click here to find out more about Science meets Parliament.
Australia’s future health and economy is a vibrant, interactive ecosystem with science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) at its core. STEM is central – and essential – to Australia’s ongoing success in the next 50 years. Australia is considered an incredible place to do cutting-edge research, pursue blue-sky ideas and commercialise innovative products. Pioneering discoveries fuel the innovation process. Students cannot wait to enrol in science and maths. Policies are developed using peer-reviewed evidence and broad consultation. Aspirational goals are backed by practical solutions and half of our STEM leaders are women – it’s the norm.
Sounds good doesn’t it?
To excel in science and innovation, however, Australia needs a major culture shift. We can all ‘talk the talk’, but as OECD figures demonstrate, we cannot ‘walk the walk’. Australia rates lowest compared to other OECD countries when it comes to business-research collaborations – not just large businesses, but small to medium-sized enterprises as well.
Academia blames industry. Industry blames academia. Everyone blames the government. It’s time to turn the pointing finger into a welcoming handshake and engage across sectors to actually make innovation happen.
Literally thousands of researchers in this country want to see our academic and industry leaders reach across the divide and make change happen. With every decision made, their future is impacted.
Paradigm-shifting science and innovation takes time and requires a diverse workforce of highly-skilled researchers and professionals that specialise in these fields.
The lack of a skilled workforce and poor collaboration are significant barriers to innovation. As part of the National Innovation and Science Agenda, the industry engagement and impact assessment aims to incentivise greater collaboration between industry and academia by examining how universities are translating their research into social and economic benefits.
Australian academic institutions have begun to break down silos within their own research organisations with some success. In medical research for example, the breadth and scale of interdisciplinary collaborative projects has expanded exponentially – spanning international borders, requiring a range of skills and expertise, terabytes of data, and years of research.
Research teams have become small companies with synergistic subsidiaries – diagnostic, basic, translational and clinical teams – working toward a common goal.
Yet their engagement with industry is low. Industry struggles to navigate the ever-changing complex leadership structures in higher education and research. When you speak one-on-one with researchers and industry leaders, however, they seem almost desperate to cross the divide and connect! It’s a detrimental dichotomy.
How can we harness the full potential of our research workforce?
We can energise innovation by fostering a culture that values basic research as well as translation of discoveries to product, practice and policy. A culture that opens the ivory tower and is not so sceptical of industry-academia engagement. That responds to failure with resilience and determination rather than deflating, harsh judgement. That sees the potential of our young researchers.
We need to lose the tall poppy syndrome and openly celebrate the success and achievement of others. We must hold ourselves to higher standards and in particular, women must be equally recognised and rewarded for their leadership.
As a nation, we must ensure we are prepared and resourced for the challenges ahead. Not only do we need the best equipment and technologies, but we also need a readily adaptable workforce that is highly-skilled to address these issues.
To facilitate a culture shift and increase engagement with business and industry, we need to provide researchers the skills and know-how, as well as opportunities to hone these skills. Young researchers are ready to engage and hungry to learn; and they must be encouraged to do so without penalty.
They then need to be connected with industry leaders to identify the qualities and expertise they need to strengthen, and to extend their network.
We can change this now. The solution is not expensive. It is simply about letting down our guard and providing real opportunities to meet, to connect, to network, to exchange ideas and expertise – and to share that welcoming handshake.
Deloitte Global projects less than 25% of IT jobs in developed countries will be held by women at the close of 2016. My hope is that the women graduating in STEM careers this year quickly find employment in roles they can enjoy, learn and grow from, and become successful in their careers.
Of course, my wish is the same for men who are also graduating at this exciting and disruptive time in business. However, the female student’s journey to graduation and beyond is very different to that of men.
For example, female students in STEM are often the only one in their class. I have sat in many boardrooms where I am the only woman in the room. I’ve also been the only woman at conferences on information security.
Over my 25 year career, not much has changed, and I know from speaking with other women leaders in STEM that they have had similar experiences. This is not just an Australian issue. It is a problem across the globe.
A study of 22,000 global public companies by Peterson Institute for International Economics and EY shows that the net profit margin of a company can be increased by more than 6% if a company has a minimum of 30% women in the C-suite.
Most importantly, without women in the workforce, we simply won’t have the resources to continue to fuel the job economy and innovation.
So what can be done to develop women leaders in STEM?
In my experience, a multi-faceted approach is needed. It involves:
businesses providing flexible work options;
connecting their employees with both men and women leaders in STEM for mentoring;
sponsoring and encouraging young professionals to understand their potential career paths and rewards; and
instilling in female students the confidence to follow their passion and be resilient.
In terms of mentoring, I learned early on to find men and women role models and mentors. I was able to do this through ISACA, a professional organisation for IT audit, risk, governance and cybersecurity professionals. My membership and involvement in ISACA enabled me to network with local and global peers, who really helped encourage and guide me in my career.
Featured image above: women in sustainability head to Antarctica
A group of female scientists from Western Australia are preparing to embark on a leadership voyage to Antarctica.
The eight local researchers are among 78 women from around the world taking part in Homeward Bound, a 20-day trip that aims to enhance the influence and impact of women in science, and ensure the sustainability of our planet.
One of the youngest participants, PhD student Sandra Kerbler from the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology at UWA, says she is passionate about women in science and the improving gender inequality they experience.
“Only 10 to 15 per cent of top level scientists are women so there’s not very many of us, and it’s become more and more apparent how prevalent that is as I’ve been going through my studies,” she says.
“I find this really discouraging and I want to be able to fix it in some way.”
Among those joining Kerbler on the voyage—including a potentially hairy crossing of the Drake Passage—are Curtin University sustainability researcher Samantha Hall and SciTech Aboriginal education program coordinator Kathleen Patrick.
Hall says she believes women are often more attracted to sustainability.
“I really think that an integral step to bringing the planet back to being healthy and sustainable is that we need more involvement of women’s voices, and we have to make those voices heard,” she says.
“That was really the brief for Homeward Bound, it was ‘how do we get these voices at the leadership table’.”
Hall, who is a co-founder of Simply Carbon, says finding ways to overcome self-doubt and lack of confidence could help translate more women’s ideas into action, particularly in the start-up and innovation space.
Patrick says the most exciting thing about the expedition for her is the opportunity to network with the other women involved.
“I love meeting other people who are doing similar and different things in other parts of the world, sharing knowledge…and also borrowing ideas and tapping into other people’s programs,” she says.
“For me it’s [about] meeting 77 other women who are kicking goals in their respective fields.”
Ms Kerbler says she is looking forward to doing something she had never even dreamed of before.
“Going to the end of the world is definitely a big highlight for me, learning more about the strategy and leadership skills I’ll need to continue on in science and hopefully make myself a bit more competitive when it comes to my scientific career,” she says.
– Michelle Wheeler
This article about women in sustainability was first published by ScienceNetwork WA on 30 September 2016. Read the original article here.
On September 8, 70 days after the end of the financial year, Australia marked equal pay day. The time gap is significant as it marks the average additional time it takes for women to work to get the same wages as men.
Optimistically, we’d think this day should slowly move back towards June 30. And there are many reasons for optimism, as our panel of thought leaders point out in our online roundtable of industry, research and government leaders.
Yet celebrating a lessening in inequity is a feel-good exercise we cannot afford to over-indulge in.
While we mark achievements towards improving pipelines to leadership roles, work to increase enrolments of girls in STEM subjects at schools and reverse discrimination at many levels of decision making and representation, the reality is that many of these issues are only just being recognised. Many more are in dire need of being addressed more aggressively.
Direct discrimination against women and girls is something I hear about from mentors, friends and colleagues. It is prevalent and wide-reaching. There is much more we can do to address issues of diversity across STEM areas.
Enrolments of women in STEM degrees vary from 16% in computer science and engineering to 45% in science and 56% in medicine. These figures reinforce that we are teaching the next generation with the vestiges of an education system developed largely by men and for boys. There is a unique opportunity to change this.
Interdisciplinary skills are key to innovation. Millennials today will change career paths more frequently; digital technologies will disrupt traditional career areas. By communicating that STEM skills are an essential foundation that can be combined with your interest, goals or another field, we can directly tap into the next generation. We can prepare them to be agile workers across careers, and bring to the table their skills in STEM along with experiences in business, corporates, art, law and other areas. In this utopian future, career breaks are opportunities to learn and to demonstrate skills in new areas. Part-time work isn’t seen as ‘leaning out’.
We have an opportunity to redefine education in STEM subjects, to improve employability for our graduates, to create stronger, clearer paths to leadership roles, and to redefine why and how we study STEM subjects right from early primary through to tertiary levels.
By combining STEM with X, we are opening up the field to the careers that haven’t been invented yet. As career areas shift, we have the opportunity to unleash a vast trained workforce skilled to adapt, to transition across fields, to work flexibly and remotely.
We need to push this STEM + X agenda right to early education, promoting the study of different fields together, and creating an early understanding of the different needs that different areas require.
This is what drives me to communicate science and STEM through publications such as Careers with Science, Engineering and Code. We want to convey that there are exciting career pathways through studying STEM. But we don’t know what those pathways are – that’s up to them.
Just think how many app developers there were ten year ago – how many UX designers. In 10 or even five years, we can’t predict what the rapidly growing career areas will be. But we can create a STEM aware section of the population and by doing so now, we can ensure that the next generation has an edge in creating and redefining the careers of the future.
When girls start school they are just as interested in maths and science as boys. Yet only one quarter of Australia’s STEM workforce are women. What happens along the way? Why don’t more girls opt for a career that involves science, technology, engineering or maths skills?
I was always encouraged by my family to take on any subject at school, which led to my love of numbers. I think maths has a bit of a reputation for being boring – something that’s only useful if you’re planning to become an academic or actuary. But it’s so much more.
From architecture and film animation to photography and my world of software and business management, maths skills open up a whole world of opportunities. I know my career with Microsoft was fuelled by the problem-solving skills that studying maths helped me develop.
Opening up careers for women in STEM is something I am passionate about. I have seen that professional success in many of the ‘non-traditional’ female roles requires reasonable mathematical ability.
But more than a quarter of girls in Australia do not study maths after Year 10. Girls are also underrepresented in most science classes. Without this preliminary education, it’s not surprising girls are steering clear of STEM courses at university as well.
“Programs like DigiGirlz give girls the opportunity to learn about careers in technology, connect with women who have STEM-based jobs and participate in fun, hands-on workshops.”
Not only my daughters’, but most of our kids’ working lives, are going to depend on STEM skills. Already 75% of the fastest growing industries in Australia require knowledge in these areas. If we want girls to take their place in the technologically driven world of tomorrow, we need to make some changes. We need to encourage young girls to continue to explore STEM subjects.
At Microsoft, we’re creating spaces where young women and technology can come together. Programs like DigiGirlz give girls the opportunity to learn about careers in technology, connect with women who have STEM-based jobs and participate in fun, hands-on workshops.
We also need to talk about creativity when we talk about STEM. Behind the best technologies are not only amazing ideas but also creative thinking, yet this magic ingredient is often overlooked.
One way forward is to teach young girls STEM skills that reward their curiosity and creativity by helping them bring their ideas to life. For example, teachers are now helping kids learn coding by playing Minecraft, a computer game that’s popular with both boys and girls, and allows them to create whole worlds only limited by their imagination.
If we want more women to enter careers in STEM, we need to encourage them from day one. Challenging deeply entrenched stereotypes about what girls can and can’t do isn’t going to be easy – but it will be vital for Australia’s future prosperity.
I believe that girls can achieve anything – it’s time they did too.
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.
Chief Executive Officer, Science & Technology Australia
The underrepresentation of women in the STEM research sector in Australia is a significant issue. I acknowledge, with some degree of shame, that my own core discipline of physics is one of the worst offenders.
Data from the ARC’s latest Excellence in Research for Australia round indicates that women represent only 16% of academic levels A–E in the physics discipline. As with all other Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) disciplines, the fraction is even worse in higher levels — only 10% of physics professorial staff are women.
While this fraction is probably representative of physics around the world, there are some interesting exceptions. For example, in France, the overall rate of women in physics is much stronger (around 26%). As a practitioner of nuclear physics, I was always struck by the much stronger presence of women in that sub-discipline in France. Of course, France has the presence of Marie Curie, who was awarded two Nobel prizes for her contributions to physics and chemistry. Clearly role models matter!
It is with this in mind that at least two dedicated fellowships for exceptional women researchers are awarded under the ARC’s Australian Laureate Fellowships scheme each round. One of these, the Georgina Sweet Australian Laureate Fellowship, is awarded to a female researcher in science and technology. The award is won on the basis of merit, but these researchers are given extra funding to assist them to undertake an ambassadorial role to promote women in research and to mentor early career researchers.
“Australia’s research institutions need to take joint responsibility for the progression and retention of women in the research workforce.”
Australian Laureate Fellows, such as Professors Veena Sahajwalla and Michelle Simmons from UNSW Australia and Professor Nalini Joshi from The University of Sydney, are tremendous role models and are actively encouraging and supporting women to undertake careers in STEM. A fantastic example of this is the Science 50:50 programme, led by Sahajawalla, which aims to inspire Australian girls and young women to pursue degrees and careers in science and technology.
This is a start, but it is not enough. I have been determined to strengthen the ARC’s commitment to gender equality in research through a number of initiatives. We have achieved relatively even success rates for women and men across the schemes of the National Competitive Grants Programme, but we still need significant improvements in the participation rate of women in research.
While the ARC can promote and monitor gender equality in research, Australia’s research institutions need to take joint responsibility for the progression and retention of women in the research workforce. That is why it has been so encouraging to see the research sector’s very strong response to the Science and Gender Equity (SAGE) pilot. This is surely a pivotal step forward, and one we should all support to ensure it succeeds.
Professor Aidan Byrne
Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Research Council (ARC)
For many of us staying connected is almost as important as breathing. Using a smartphone or tablet to check in with the office or family and friends is a given in our increasingly fast-paced technological society.
Having the right tools do this provides comfort and keeps our networks strong.
For women tackling satisfying but competitive STEM careers, staying connected when taking a career break is a key concern.
I was visiting a regional AECOM office recently, and I was chatting with a female staff member who had come into the office while on maternity leave to watch my presentation.
Our conversation covered a lot of ground, but it was her relief at being provided with a laptop while on leave that struck me. She wanted to stay connected and looped in with work while looking after her growing family.
Providing tools like a laptop or a work mobile is a very simple way of making sure that women remain plugged into the workplace when they aren’t physically there. While they may not want to connect every day, it does mean that they can continue a conversation around how their career will evolve when they come back into the workforce.
Not only this, it also allows women to be involved with what’s going on in the office, maintain control over their career planning, including performance and salary discussions.
We do need to get better at supporting women as life transitions take them on different pathways, and such initiatives have important implications for retaining women as they move through their STEM career.
While some women have communicated to me that they want to progress in terms of their own merit (and I am very confident that we do that), we also need to consciously intervene with strategies and solutions. After all, it is still not a level playing field – the numbers tell us that.
Recently a lot of the conversation has centred around ways of attracting more women into the STEM sector (and AECOM is committed to this, recently achieving a 50/50 gender intake in our graduate program), retaining them is also a key focus of our efforts.
All too often we see women drop out of the workforce because the framework isn’t there to support them, this is where mentoring comes in.
When women are at that critical juncture where it may seem too difficult to continue, connecting with other women who have had similar experiences and with whom they can share their concerns and benefit from their perspective is extremely important.
Personally, mentoring has shown me that many of the concerns of women undertaking STEM careers revolve around practical things like how to ask for a promotion or a salary increase, or how they can work more flexibly.
For me this is an important connection to have, as it gives me a perspective on how women are feeling, and I can bring that to the table at wider industry discussions, as a board member at Infrastructure Partnerships Australia or as a champion of change with Consult Australia.
On a more practical level, at AECOM we are equipping our managers with the skills to have conversations about career and flexible work – we are being very conscious in terms of planning for the future compositions of our teams.
By doing this we are increasing our connectivity, and supplementing it with technology and open conversations to help both our female and male staff as they move through different life stages. For women working in STEM, my advice is to take charge of your own career. You’ve got to treat it like a project, communicate your needs and back yourself.
Chief Executive Officer, AECOM, Australia and New Zealand
Read next:Innovating Australia – Australia’s top thinkers describe their vision for the future of innovation.
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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.
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.
People imagine all kinds of life experiences when they ponder what a career in the Royal Australian Navy might offer. Only a small portion of them could ever imagine the range of opportunities available to STEM qualified professionals. The chance to work with cutting edge technologies is not limited to life in the field. Critical work in support of missions occurs everyday in many different environments. The Navy is facilitated by technical and logistics businesses behind the scenes that are amongst the most proficient operations in the world. Careers in the Navy are attracting more and more women each year.
My early career as a woman in the Navy
My 27-year career has not been without challenges. As one of the first female naval officers ever to serve on an Australian warship, the challenges were many and varied.
In the early days, I was a novelty; something foreign in a traditionally male-only environment. There was a need to change peoples’ paradigms of thought about an employee’s suitability, competence and worthiness to lead others.
Through circumstance and rapidly changing policies, I unwittingly become a trailblazer; part of a change that, it would be fair to say, could not be fully understood and meticulously planned before execution.
From those early days when I first took up residence in a cramped three-berth cabin, I learnt as I went – and so did the Navy. In challenging circumstances, away from home for long periods, isolated from my support networks, I made things work. I learned many lessons the hard way, but in the process helped design a better Navy for those who would follow.
Married with children
One of the greatest emotional challenges I faced while serving at sea came after I was married and had children. It was a huge personal struggle even contemplating the idea of leaving my family. There were many times I thought I should leave. I was torn.
When I had first joined the Navy, females were able to choose whether or not they went to sea. But with changing policy it soon became apparent that sea service would be mandatory if I had any chance of progressing through the ranks and receiving the technically challenging and professionally rewarding roles I aspired to. I also really enjoyed my work and was driven to progress.
In the end it was a compromise. I slowed my career during my children’s formative years, and the love and support of my fantastic husband and extended family made balancing career and family manageable, despite remaining difficult on an emotional level.
Balancing career and family
I know many women – and men for that matter – struggle with choices involving balancing career and family and I think the best way to support people is to be honest and truly acknowledge how difficult it often is.
For me, it meant compartmentalising the challenging periods of separation and recognising the sacrifices as short-term compared with a much longer career of professional satisfaction.
These decisions come with varying degrees of difficulty depending on what support networks people have, their level of personal resilience and their own assessment of the opportunity cost. It will never be the same for everyone.
Can women have it all?
One thing I know for sure is that almost anything is possible and for those wondering whether a woman can have it all; I would say yes. But I would also counsel that the pursuit of one desire is almost always at the expense of another. The idea is to be reflective, understand what the risks are, assess what value you place on all aspects of your life and make decisions that work for your circumstances. Always remember that success can take many forms.
With flexible work arrangements, community support programs and different career paths that better cater for the needs of families, many options have been developed during my career. I am glad to have been one of the women who informed these enhancements through experience.
Reflecting on my own career, I feel incredibly privileged to have had so many diverse opportunities for learning and growth. From leading technical teams in operational roles, my career journey has evolved and morphed across a wide range of disciplines. STEM professionals today can expect challenge, growth, diversification and adventure at every stage of what can only be described as an amazingly rewarding career.
Captain Mona Shindy
Directing Staff, Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies, Australian Defence College
Telstra Australian Business Woman of the Year, 2015
“Science Meets Business” – this is a beautiful thing. It does not get better than that for me, having trained as a scientist and worked for more than 30 years in business, including the past 27 years with Dow, one of the world’s leading science and technology companies. At Dow we are proud of our mission to combine chemistry, physics and biology to create what is essential for human progress. As our ever growing population faces pressing challenges, we believe that innovation will be the key to addressing the needs of the future.
Implicit in this vision is that graduates in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) are readily available to drive innovation and progress humanity and, just as importantly, that the graduate pool reflects the diversity of our society in all its dimensions.
Over recent years, there has been an increasing recognition of the imbalance of women in STEM. This has culminated in an impressive $13 million of the National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA) funding being earmarked to support women in STEM careers including support for SAGE, Australia’s Science and Gender Equity initiative to promote gender equity in STEM.
Changing corporate culture
There is a real need for this concerted effort to address gender inequity. According to the Chief Scientist’s March 2016 report, women make up only 16% of Australia’s STEM Workforce.
The good news is that in recent years, a lot has been done to address the gender inequality issues. We have a strong combination of social awareness, government policy and financial investment, corporate and business buy-in and social consciousness of the issue.
I have recently met a number of female board directors who have openly acknowledged that their appointment is due to the Victorian governments spilling of agency boards and establishing a 50% gender quota requirement. This is one example of real and substantial change.
Across the globe, Dow has over 1,600 employee volunteers, known as STEM Ambassadors, who are helping to bring STEM subjects to life in the classroom, and serving as role models of a diverse STEM workforce.
In partnership with the Women in Business Summit hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ), Dow has also taken a leadership role to improve STEM career development opportunities for women. We are progressing slowly, but steadily, with women constituting nearly 60% of new Australian and New Zealand hires at Dow in 2016.
With the $13 million NISA investment and the changing corporate culture, now is the perfect opportunity for young women to seek and develop a career in STEM.
Innovation in general will be the driving force of commercial success, economic growth and national development. A large part of this will come from R&D and innovation in STEM fields.
If the majority of future jobs are yet to be imagined, then women in particular are in a perfect position to seize the opportunity of creating these positions.
The management glass ceiling might exist today, but if the jobs are yet to be invented, then then we have a chance of shattering that ceiling in the future.
Managing Director & Regional President, Australia and New Zealand, Dow Chemical Company
Attracting and keeping talented women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) fields is not just a matter of equality for the sake of equality. While it is important – young girls and women should have the same opportunities as men – great advances cannot be made without the collective diversity of thinking that both women and men bring to the table.
I feel I have been quite fortunate in my career to date. After my PhD, I left Australia to undertake a postdoc at Harvard with one child – four years later I returned with three. While my productivity during the postdoc could be argued as lower than average, I was in hindsight insulated from ‘reality’ through the support of an amazing team and a major National Institutes of Health Program Grant.
Returning to Australia, I realised that without real recognition of career disruptions in an individual’s research track record, people like me would be considered ‘uncompetitive’. While this was not the only reason I left research, these hurdles did contribute to identifying my new career path.
While working at the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) I had the privilege of managing funding schemes worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually to support great health and medical researchers. More importantly, I was able to establish the Women in Health Science Committee.
Through the work of this committee we were able to implement a number of strategies that aimed to both acknowledge the difficulties women face in the field of research, and secondly to address issues around the retention and progression of women in the field. This included consideration of career disruptions, part-time opportunities and making institutions who received NHMRC funds take stock of their gender equity policies and practices. While great advances have been made, there is still so much more that needs to be done and it cannot rely solely on the shoulders of funding agencies.
“If we don’t focus on attracting and retaining bright and intelligent women we will continue to lose the capacity to make real progress in society through poor management of this valuable resource.”
Recently I have joined the Academy of Science to work with the Science in Australia Gender Equality (SAGE) team. SAGE is a national accreditation program that recognises, promotes and rewards excellence in advancing gender equality and diversity in STEMM in the higher education system.
While it is in its early days, I hope that SAGE or a similar accreditation model becomes a permanent feature of the sector and that funding agencies continue to reform practices to encourage women to be recognised for their efforts. We need many talented and innovative brains working in the STEMM fields.
If we don’t focus on attracting and retaining bright and intelligent women we will continue to lose the capacity to make real progress in society through poor management of this valuable resource.
Dr Saraid Billiards
Director of the Research Grants team at the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC)
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?
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.”
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.
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.
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.
The world around us is undergoing rapid transformation by people finding innovative ways to use information and technology to better serve our needs. At the heart of these disruptive innovations are people with deep groundings in science, technology, engineering and maths – the STEM disciplines.
Critically, the number of kids studying subjects in school that lead to STEM courses is decreasing. According the Australian Bureau of Statistics only 29% of STEM graduates are women, and in the key disciplines of IT and engineering this falls to 14%. Low enrolment numbers for women in STEM have been a consistent factor since I was an undergraduate in engineering.
Today, Australia competes in the global race for innovative ideas with only half the team – the male half. If we are to develop new industries that move us beyond Australia’s traditional industries and allow us to be globally competitive, we have to change.
For a start, we have to help our kids, and in particular our girls, understand the wealth of opportunities open to them with a STEM foundation. We need to address any perceived or real bias in our high school exam systems and marking arrangements that discourage kids from taking up studies in maths and science. With the highly competitive nature of the results from high school assessments, we need to work to change views that taking STEM subjects could lead to any disadvantage.
We also have to recognise – as a positive – the fact that many STEM graduates will work in roles outside of the classical STEM disciplines. These are role models for a future in which interdisciplinary graduates are able to contribute to the transformation of traditional industries such as the finance, automotive and healthcare sectors.
In an effort to stimulate interest in STEM early on in schooling, Macquarie University runs the FIRST Robotics program in Australia for children in years K–12, with key sponsorship by Google and Ford. This program gives all participants a chance to work as teams that bring together mechanics, electronics, information processing, design and software development skills to build robots and compete with them.
This is an example of how we can not only inspire school students’ interest in STEM, but create pathways for them to pursue these fields into further study, careers, and entrepreneurship in a variety of areas. Today the program involves 5000 kids from 600 schools, and the total numbers of participants across Australia is rapidly growing.
Having stimulated interest at school, we need examples at universities and in the workplace that highlight the important roles that women with STEM backgrounds occupy. This is vital to improving the pull of women through universities and into industries where they are able to make meaningful contributions.
At Macquarie University, we are actively focused on building women’s participation in world-leading research programs through the Science in Australia Gender Equality (SAGE) program. We are able to celebrate the achievements of our world-leading female researchers, including role models such as Macquarie University’s Professor Ewa Goldys (recent winner of a Eureka Award) and Professor Nicki Packer.
Having shining examples of where STEM can take our young women is key to closing the gender gap. We need to expose women to the right kinds of images and messages, which involves having conversations around the non-traditional and non-linear career pathways available to them.
Professor Barbara Ann Messerle
Executive Dean, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Macquarie University
The recent Olympics triggered my thinking on how passionate we are about winning. I remember a time when Australia was unable to compete against the world class American, Russian and German teams. Our nation reacted by establishing the government funded Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra (AIS). The AIS acknowledges they are responsible and accountable for Australia’s international sporting success. Australia’s top sporting talent is selected, nurtured, and trained for the purpose of competing against the world’s best. Their success is celebrated, and the cycle continues.
Growing the number of STEM experts in our workforce is no different. If Australia wants to be recognised as a world-class STEM nation, commitment to developing our talent through established strategic programs funded by sustainable investment is essential.
When measuring STEM talent, our focus is on numbers that come out of university. However, consider our athletes for a moment. They have already been training for the better part of a decade. They don’t arrive at the institute ready to be trained. Junior athletics, swimming squads and after-school sport training are part of most schools and parents’ agenda to develop their children’s skills from a very young age. If the success of sport is to be replicated for STEM disciplines, then school years should not be overlooked.
Creating a foundation for young women
Traditional education should always be respected and never replaced, however there is always room for flexibility and balance. My own career in IT was shaped by the foundations provided to me by my high school environment. The all-girls school I attended offered Computing Studies as a subject for the Higher School Certificate. It was only the second year it was offered and approximately 20 students signed up. It was here, along with my home environment of a tech-savvy family, where I developed foundations in IT.
I pursued a tertiary education in commerce as I initially had no interest in computer science. Nevertheless, my first significant role was working as a computer engineer in IT – a job I landed based on the foundational skills I had acquired through my high school studies. I had found a position where I was able to solve problems while continuing to learn and gain additional certifications. I was the only female in a team of 12, but I didn’t focus on the gender inequality at the time.
Developing Australia’s STEM talent
Innovation requires novel thinking and raising Australia’s STEM IQ to world-class requires a considered and committed long term strategy, including initiatives for supporting women in STEM.
I work for Deloitte in the technology industry alongside women who have studied econometrics, law, accounting, engineering and arts. Deloitte recognises the importance of driving Australia’s STEM agenda and (amongst other initiatives) have selected two female directors from cybersecurity and technology consulting to share their expertise and experiences with young Australian women through an online mentoring platform, Day of STEM.
Our aim is to inspire Australia’s future STEM generation and highlight the real-life opportunities available in professional services firms like Deloitte.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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
It is well documented that the number of women in STEM at senior levels in Australia are low. This is not a new problem, it has been reported for decades. The only thing we can be certain of is that it is not just a ‘pipeline’ problem anymore.
Women are embarking on careers in STEM at the highest rates ever seen. There is still room for improvement, but the bigger problem is that women leave STEM careers at the formative early to mid-career stage. They never get to senior levels, not because they don’t want to, but largely due to a system where opportunities aren’t on offer.
“If we do nothing, we will be having this conversation again in another 10 years.”
Despite the assumption that the main problem is women having children, there are much bigger issues in STEM. For example, at a recent meeting of STEM academics, the moderator asked for ideas or insights into what would help women’s careers to progress. The first person to raise their hand was a senior male professor. He announced that flexible work conditions and financial support for housework and childcare are needed to support females in STEM. Perfectly reasonable suggestions many would say, but the unintended consequences of him speaking gets straight to the heart of the issue.
Firstly, he and everyone else in the room thought it was acceptable for him to speak on behalf of entire portion of the STEM workforce that he will never be a part of. Secondly, after he spoke not one female academic offered any of their own suggestions. By speaking first he immediately set the discussion to focus on carer and home responsibilities, reaffirming that women bear the burden of these activities and have no other major issues.
Why do we continue to let this happen? I wonder if he had not spoken first, would we have been given the chance to raise bigger issues women in STEM face?
Recognising and promoting women
After many workshops, symposia, conferences and focus groups for women in STEM the same theme resonates: women in STEM need to be recognised and included.
Women are rarely promoted rapidly up the ranks, do not easily promote themselves and do not feel entitled to recognition – they will not ask to be an author on a paper, to be lead investigator on a large collaboration or to apply for leadership positions. Men find all of this easier to do, therefore women continue to leave STEM careers rather than promote themselves based on ‘merit’ or ‘excellence’.
Should we attempt to change the innate, instinctive behaviours of males and females who happen to work in STEM? Or should we change the structure and systemic biases that funnel men to the top and women out of a career in STEM?
Taking career breaks from science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) jobs can give you an opportunity to re-engage with the workforce in new ways, say industry leaders.
Maintaining support networks, using transferable skills from postgraduate study and setting effective productivity goals are all essential skills in regaining career credibility after time away from work, say highly ranked women leaders at the national Women in STEM summit in Sydney.
Megan Baldwin, CEO and Managing Director of Opthea Ltd, a biotech company specialising in the factors leading to eye diseases, says it’s also important to realise that no one will judge you if you are going to walk out of the office at 5.30 or 6 at night instead of 8pm.
“You will be judged on how well you do your work. There are always a million things on your calendar. And it’s important to build your network, but you also need to learn to say ‘no’ if it’s not directly relevant to you.”
Deborah Rathjen, CEO and Managing Director of drug discovery and development company Bionomic Ltd says there’s lots of opportunity to come back and re-engage with your work after career breaks or shifts, and these are opportunities that can benefit an organisation.
“There are so many paths to having a productive life and a productive career.”
For example, in moving from academia to biotech, the skills she learnt as a postdoc science student, such as networking, were really important, she says.
“If you are on short term contracts with endless grant writing, that kind of grind is quite intense. You’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. Maintaining your networks and maintaining your supporters during this time is really important,” she says.
Taking career breaks in STEM
Career breaks can be anything from family leave to academic sabbaticals or time spent in another industry, all increasingly diverse pathways that are particular true for women working in STEM, the summit heard.
“It costs a lot of money to recruit and train people,” says Rathjen. “If people then resign because the company is inflexible there is lost time and productivity in that. It’s about having links into the community so you can find replacements for short term contracts but also creating the environment so that people feel like they have the ability to return to work.”
IP Australia, the national patent office which employs 400 scientists and engineers, creates this environment through developing flexibility as a “mainstream way of working”.
“Young people who have come to us from the private sector really value flexible time, the ability to take career breaks such as leave without pay, or even taking time off to work in startups,” says Patricia Kelly, Director General of IP Australia. “Developing methods for young people to work in mobile ways makes the workforce more attractive,” she says.
Alison Stone, Deputy Director General of Land and Natural Resources at the NSW Department of Primary Industries says that some people love 9-5 hours, while others “literally work 7 days a week”.
“But everyone has hours dedicated to their family. For me it’s about keeping to your routine, whatever that is.
“Even though I’ve been in government for 30 years I worked in the private sector also. I’ve found that you often have to re-establish who you are.
“One of the tricks I’ve established is to think about how you’d like to come back to work. In those career break experiences, whether that’s having a child or a sabbatical, it’s an opportunity to come back with a defined objective.”
Leadership in women
“Collaborative leadership is critical,” says Rathjen, who heads a company of 140 staff at Bionomics Ltd. “Your business will wither if you don’t collaborate with academia, and industry. A lot of these skills you learn as a postgraduate. Networking and developing links in Australia and overseas was a big opportunity for me that I took into leadership and that progressed me through my career.”
Megan Baldwin from Opthea Ltd adds that the other key message is to recognise that everyone comes from a different perspective.
“You do need to assert yourself though and you need to be comfortable in those shoes. You need to be true to how you want to lead, but also be authoritative.
“But everyone comes with their own life experience and their own priorities and you need to be attuned to that also.”
“One of the best pieces of advice I had was to take time for ‘thinking’,” says Rathjen. “That’s been a life saver for me. Whether that’s strategy or realising I haven’t touched based on a particular project, it’s about freeing up your mind to look at the big picture.”
NASA’s Women in STEM featured image above: Anita Sengupta and Donn Liddle stand with a subscale test model of NASA’s Orion spacecraft and its parachute in the low-speed wind tunnel at Texas A&M University. The Orion spacecraft is being designed to take humans farther into space than ever before. Credit: NASA/James Blair
It’s not often that the lead characters in a blockbuster film have careers as particle physicists and nuclear engineers – and even less often that those roles are played by women. But the new “Ghostbusters” film, which features an all-female team of scientists and engineers, busts not just ghosts, but also some of the tropes about what it means to work in science, technology, engineering and maths. It’s an idea that has scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) excited about how it might inspire the next generation.
So if they don’t spend their days bustin’ ghosts, what do JPL’s “Ghostbusters” do? Here are the stories of three of NASA’s women in science and engineering at JPL whose jobs, much like their “Ghostbusters” counterparts’, are to explore new realms, battle invisible forces and explain the mysteries around us.
Meet NASA’s Women in STEM
The Leader: Anita Sengupta
Project Manager, Cold Atom Laboratory
What she does:
In a team of professional ghostbusters, Anita Sengupta would most certainly be the enthusiastic and multi-talented leader. She’s already taken on roles developing launch vehicles, the parachute that famously helped land the Mars rover Curiosity, and deep-space propulsion systems for missions to comets and asteroids.
NASA’s Women in STEM featured video above: Sengupta and other members of the entry, descent and landing team for NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity discuss the nail-biting details of the August 2012 landing.
Most recently, she’s carved out a niche as the project manager for an atomic physics mission, called the Cold Atom Laboratory, or CAL.
Since the mission was proposed in 2012, Sengupta has been leading a team of engineers and atomic physicists in developing an instrument that can see the unseen. Their mission is to create an ultra-cold quantum gas called a Bose-Einstein condensate, which is a state of matter that forms only at just above absolute zero. At such low temperatures, matter takes on unique properties that seemingly defy the laws of thermodynamics.
To achieve the feat, the team’s device will be installed on the International Space Station in July 2017, where the microgravity of space will keep the Bose-Einstein condensate suspended long enough for scientists to get a look at how it behaves. Observing this behaviour could lead to groundbreaking discoveries, not least of which is a better understanding of how complexity arises in the universe. The facility could also provide new insights into gravity, super fluidity and dark-matter detection.
“We are opening the doorway into a new quantum realm, so we actually don’t know what we’re going to see,” says Sengupta. “That’s what’s so exciting. It’s about discovery.”
Sengupta’s career has been defined by her unique ability to take on challenges in new realms of science and engineering. It’s a trait that closely mimics the fictional character who inspired her as a child: Doctor Who.
“I saw the character of the doctor, who was this very eccentric, but loving, kind and brilliant person,” says Sengupta.
“I decided I would like to be a person who travels in space, who understands and can apply all fields of science and engineering. That motivated me to be involved in space exploration and, of course, get my doctorate.”
After considering majors in astrophysics, astronomy, biology and aerospace engineering, she settled on aerospace engineering because, she says, “I loved fixing things, and the idea of knowing how to build spacecraft just blew my mind.”
She doesn’t regret the decision. It seems she would have stretched the boundaries of whichever path she chose. Currently, she’s serving multiple leadership roles on the Cold Atom Laboratory team while also teaching astronautical engineering classes as an associate professor at the University of Southern California. And she still manages to carve out time for her other passions, which include driving sport motorcycles, snowboarding and flying planes.
On STEM in pop culture:
“It’s important for young people to understand that to be an intellectual or a scientist does not necessarily correspond to being socially awkward or geeky,” says Sengupta. “You have all varieties of people.”
“A lot of people at JPL are musicians or athletes or I’m a motorcyclist. There are people who have these hobbies and interests outside of doing something traditionally nerdy, so it’s a disservice to STEM to paint people in any particular light.”
The Engineer: Luz Maria Martinez Sierra
Technologist, Natural Space Environments
What she does:
As a nuclear engineer, Luz Maria Martinez Sierra has never built a ghost-bustin’ proton gun, but she does design defences against invisible forces. In her case, it’s protecting spacecraft from the intense radiation around planets like Jupiter.
“Space is a very hostile environment, and there are a lot of particles and radiation that can be very dangerous to the spacecraft,” says Martinez Sierra. “It’s very important to make sure everything is shielded accordingly, so we run all these simulations to determine, ‘Ok, you will need to protect this and you need to make sure this survives by putting it behind the solar panels.’”
NASA’s Women in STEM featured video above: Part of Martinez Sierra’s work is designing radiation defense systems for spacecraft like the one created for the Juno mission shown in the animation above. Juno arrived at Jupiter on July 4, 2016 and will fly closer to the planet – and its intense radiation – than ever before. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
In addition to shielding spacecraft against radiation, she designs devices that can analyse it to reveal hidden details about planets, moons and other bodies. By looking at the radiation signatures of these bodies, scientists can better understand what they’re made of and whether they might be home to, for example, the ingredients for life.
To the unacquainted, a career in nuclear engineering might seem oddly specific, but Martinez Sierra is quick to point out just how many applications it has, even just at NASA. Nuclear engineers might design systems to protect astronauts venturing to places like Mars, build instruments to study the sun and other stars, or work with spacecraft powered by radioactive materials.
For her part, the career path evolved through a love of physics that traces back to high school in her native Colombia.
“I always loved science, even at a young age,” says Martinez Sierra. “And when I took physics in high school, it just clicked. I loved how everything could be described by physics.”
She started attending local astronomy events and later earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in engineering physics. In 2014, she was accepted into an internship with the laboratory’s Maximizing Student Potential in STEM program, which “taught me how to be part of a working environment, solving problems with a team and making sure that I belonged in this field,” she says.
“I see myself in them,” says Martinez Sierra of the students she mentored during the program.
“I was lost. I didn’t know what I wanted to study or what I wanted to do in my career or how you go from being in college to being a professional. You don’t see that connection easily. It’s important to help students realise it’s not just magic. You have to pursue it. You have to be proactive.”
That she is. On top of her full-time job and serving as an occasional mentor for students, Martinez Sierra is also earning her doctorate in nuclear engineering.
On STEM in pop culture:
“There are so many different types of engineers and scientists, even at JPL,” says Martinez Sierra. “But they’re always portrayed as the same person in movies and TV shows. I like how in the new ‘Ghostbusters’ movie, the characters are portrayed as these cool people. They’re not boring. They get to play with cool toys and make cool things.”
The Scientist: Jean Dickey
Scientist, Sea Level and Ice
What she does:
While the applications have evolved over her 36-year career at JPL, Jean Dickey’s specialty has always been explaining the mysteries that surround us. Her research focuses on the forces and processes that affect our home planet – everything from Earth’s gravity to changes in length-of-day to its evolving climate. She has published more than 70 papers, which include findings of a possible molten core on the moon and a method for predicting the variations in Earth’s rotation.
“Right now, I’m looking at changes in sea-level rise using data from the Jason and GRACE Earth satellites. There are pockets of warm ocean that explain why Earth’s sea-surface temperature was increasing at a lower rate,” says Dickey, referring to a previously unexplained hiatus in the otherwise strong uptick in surface air temperature. “It’s because the heat was going down deep in the ocean and was not accounted for.”
Data streams in from Earth satellites, airborne missions, and on-the-ground observations, and Dickey’s job is to make sense of it all. It’s a crucial part of understanding what’s happening on our home planet – and beyond.
Inspired early on by the success of the Sputnik satellite and the ensuing Space Race, and equipped with an affinity for maths and science, Dickey was the only one of six siblings to study science. When she graduated from Rutgers University in 1976 with a doctorate in physics, she was well accustomed to being the only woman in her classes and on research teams, but she never let that fact stop her.
She chose to specialise in high-energy particle physics, because as she describes it, “it was finding the essence, the basic building blocks of the universe. The quirks, colours and flavours.”
As a postdoc at Caltech, Dickey analysed data from particle experiments that were performed at Fermilab, a particle accelerator just outside of Chicago. She studied the dynamics of particle collisions and interpreted the findings, which meant using specialised software to analyse enormous data sets.
After three years at Caltech, she took on a new role at JPL analysing a much different set of data, but one that was no less intriguing. By studying the round-trip travel time of lasers shot between observatories on Earth and reflectors left on the moon by the Apollo astronauts, Dickey made new discoveries about how the moon oscillates and the Earth rotates, and how small variations can have big impacts on weather, sea level and even space exploration.
It was a big change from particle physics, but Dickey was hooked.
“I was fascinated by Earth rotation and the processes ongoing here on Earth.”
Ever since, her research has revolved around the undulations, variations and wobbles that influence Earth’s climate, processes and its place in the solar system.
On STEM in pop culture:
“I like to see women in STEM portrayed as smart, caring people,” says Dickey. “I really dislike roles that show women as ‘space cadets,’ so to speak. I think we should be well represented in movies and in the culture.”
Sobering statistics on gender disparity were released by the Office of the Chief Scientist in early 2016 as part of a report on STEM-based employment. These followed the federal government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA) announcement of a $13 million investment to encourage women to choose and stick with STEM careers. So, what are the issues for men and women entering STEM graduate pathways today and how can you change the game?
The rate of increase in female STEM-qualified graduates is outstripping that of males by 6 per cent. Overall, however, women make up just 16% of STEM-qualified people, according to the Chief Scientist’s March 2016 report, Australia’s STEM Workforce.
SAGE was founded by Professors Nalini Joshi and Brian Schmidt (a Nobel laureate) with a view to creating an Australian pilot of UK program the Athena SWAN Charter. Established in 2005, Athena SWAN was described by the British House of Commons as the “most comprehensive and practical scheme to improve academics’ careers by addressing gender inequity”.
Since September 2015, 32 organisations have signed up for Australia’s SAGE pilot, which takes a data analysis approach to affect change. Organisations gather information such as the number of women and men hired, trained and promoted across various employment categories. They then analyse these figures to uncover any underlying gender inequality issues, explains Dr Susan Pond, a SAGE program leader and adjunct professor in engineering and information technologies at the University of Sydney. Finally, participating organisations develop a sustainable four-year action plan to resolve the diversity issues that emerge from the analyses.
Women occupy fewer than one in five senior researcher positions in Australian universities and institutes, and there are almost three times as many male than female STEM graduates in the highest income bracket ($104K and above). The Australia’s STEM Workforce report found this wealth gap is not accounted for by the percentage of women with children, or by the higher proportion of females working part-time.
There are, however, some opportunities revealed by the report. While only 13% of engineering graduates are female, 35% of employees with engineering degrees are female, so a larger proportion of women engineers are finding jobs. Across all sectors, however, employment prospects for STEM-qualified women are worse than for non-STEM qualified women – a situation that’s reversed for men.
Part of the problem is that graduates view academic careers as the only outcome of a STEM degree – they aren’t being exposed to careers in industry and the corporate sector, says Dr Marguerite Evans-Galea, a senior research leader at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute and co-founder of Women in Science Australia.
“There are so many compounding issues in the academic environment: it’s hypercompetitive, you have to be an elite athlete throughout your entire career,” she says. “This impacts women more because they are often the primary caregivers.”
An increased focus on diversity in STEM skills taught at schools, however, is changing the way women relate to careers in the field, Marguerite says.
“There are opportunities for women because, with diversified training, we can realise there is a broad spectrum of careers. A PhD is an opportunity to hone your skills towards these careers.”
In the workforce, more flexible work arrangements and greater technical connectivity are improving conditions for women at the early-career level but, as Marguerite points out, there is still a bottleneck at the top.
“I’m still justifying my career breaks to this day,” she says. “It’s something that travels throughout your entire career – and this needs to change.”
Part of the issue is the way we measure success, as well as gender disparity, on career and grant application review panels – and this won’t change overnight.
“How we define merit may be different if there are more women in the room,” Marguerite adds. “There will be a more diverse range of ideas. Collaborations and engagement with the public may be valued more, as well as your ability to be an advocate and be a role model to other women in STEM. Paired with essential high-quality research, it could provide a broader lens.”
Featured video above: NERVO’s engineering music video aims to get girls switched onto careers in engineering.
Eight top universities – led by the University of New South Wales – have launched a song and music video by Australia’s twin-sister DJ duo NERVO to highlight engineering as an attractive career for young women.
NERVO, made up of 29-year-old singer-songwriters and sound engineers Miriam Nervo and Olivia Nervo, launched the video clip for People Grinnin’ worldwide on Friday 15 July.
In the futuristic video clip, a group of female engineers create android versions of NERVO in a high-tech lab, using glass touchscreens and a range of other technologies that rely on engineering, highlighting how it is embedded in every facet of modern life.
The song and video clip are part of Made By Me, a national collaboration between UNSW, the University of Wollongong, the University of Western Australia, the University of Queensland, Monash University, the University of Melbourne, the Australian National University and the University of Adelaide together with Engineers Australia, which launched on the same day across the country.
It aims to challenge stereotypes and shows how engineering is relevant to many aspects of our lives, in an effort to to change the way young people, particularly girls, see engineering. Although a rewarding and varied discipline, it has for decades suffered gender disparity and chronic skills shortage.
NERVO, the Melbourne-born electronic dance music duo, pack dancefloors from Ibiza to India and, according to Forbes, are one of the world’s highest-earning acts in the male-dominated genre. They said the Made by Me project immediately appealed to them.
“When we did engineering, we were the only girls in the class. So when we were approached to get behind this project it just made sense,” they said.
“We loved the chance to show the world that there is engineering in every aspect of our lives,” they said. “We’re sound engineers, but our whole show is only made possible through expert engineering: the makeup we wear, the lights and the stage we perform on.”
“Engineering makes it all possible, including the music that we make.”
Alexandra Bannigan, UNSW Women in Engineering Manager and Made By Me spokesperson, said the project highlights the varied careers of engineers, and the ways in which engineers can make a real difference in the world.
“When people think engineering, they often picture construction sites and hard hats, and that perception puts a lot of people off,” she said. “Engineering is more than that, and this campaign shows how engineering is actually a really diverse and creative career option that offers strong employment prospects in an otherwise tough job market.”
She noted that the partner universities, which often compete for the best students, see the issue as important enough to work together.
“We normally compete for students with rival universities, but this is such an important issue that we’re working together to break down those perceptions,” she said.
Made By Me includes online advertising across desktop and mobiles, a strong social media push, a website telling engineering stories behind the video, links to career sites, as well as the song and video, to be released by Sony globally on the same day. Developed by advertising agency Whybin/TBWA, the campaign endeavours to change the way young people, particularly girls, see engineering.
“We needed to find a way to meet teenagers on home turf and surprise them with an insight into engineering that would open their minds to its possibilities,” said Mark Hoffman, UNSW’s Dean of Engineering. “This is what led to the idea of producing an interactive music video, sprinkled with gems of information to pique the audience’s interest in engineering.”
UNSW has recently accelerated efforts to attract more women into engineering, more than tripling attendance at its annual Women in Engineering Camp, in which 90 bright young women in Years 11 and 12 came to UNSW from around Australia for a week this year to explore engineering as a career and visiting major companies like Google, Resmed and Sydney Water. It has also tripled the number of Women in Engineering scholarships to 15, valued at more than $150,000 annually.
Hoffman, who became Dean of Engineering in 2015, has set a goal to raise female representation among students, staff and researchers to 30% by 2020. Currently, 23% of UNSW engineering students are female (versus the Australian average of 17%), which is up from 21% in 2015. In industry, only about 13% of engineers are female, a ratio that has been growing slowly for decades.
“Engineering has one of the highest starting salaries, and the average starting salary for engineering graduates has been actually higher for women than for men,” said Hoffman. “Name another profession where that’s happening.”
Australia is frantically short of engineers: for more than a decade, the country has annually imported more than double the number who graduate from Australian universities.
Some 18,000 engineering positions need to be filled annually, and almost 6,000 come from engineering students who graduate from universities in Australia, of whom the largest proportion come from UNSW in Sydney, which has by far the country’s biggest engineering faculty. The other 12,000 engineers arrive in Australia to take up jobs – 25% on temporary work visas to alleviate chronic job shortages.
“Demand from industry has completely outstripped supply, and that demand doubled in the past decade,” said Hoffman. “In a knowledge driven economy, the best innovation comes from diverse teams who bring together different perspectives. This isn’t just about plugging the chronic skills gap – it’s also a social good to bring diversity to our technical workforce, which will help stimulate more innovation. We can’t win at the innovation game if half of our potential engineers are not taking part in the race.”
UNSW has also created a new national award, the Ada Lovelace Medal for an Outstanding Woman Engineer, to highlight the significant contributions to Australia made by female engineers.