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