Introducing: STEMM Trails

Introducing: STEMM Trails

posted in: Blog, STEMM Trails | 1

Hello and welcome to STEMM Trails!

Bri Lee and the fabulous team at Hot Chicks with Big Brains have given me, Claire Barnes, some space to write about an issue important to me: women in STEMM fields (that is, science, engineering, technology, mathematics and medicine). From here on in you can expect interviews with boss women in STEMM at all stages of their careers, articles about pertinent issues faced by women in these fields, and some passion and thoughts on the topic in general.

So what’s the problem?

The gender disparity in the STEMM workforce in Australia (and, let’s face it, all over the world) is very real. Forgetting medicine for the moment, women make up just 28% of the STEM workforce in this country, with only 14% in engineering. We fare better than the UK, where about 14.4% of the STEM workforce is female and only 8.2% in engineering. The figures differ across the globe, but the general trend is there: women are heavily under-represented. Medicine has made leaps and bounds, with women typically the dominant group within most medical schools, yet they still remain heavily under-represented in leadership positions and certain specialty areas. And let’s not forget the sexism that is still a major issue in medicine; that deserves an article entirely to itself, so I won’t do it an injustice here.

Talent is lost at all stages of the pipeline: studies show a difference in attitudes between genders towards science subjects that starts already in primary school, with more female students reporting lower levels of confidence in maths subjects. In Year 12, the differences are starker: participation in key STEMM subjects shows a clear gender imbalance, as boys are 3x more likely to study physics and nearly twice as likely to study advanced maths.

These are worrying figures, but perhaps unsurprising following the recent news that girls as young as six believe that brilliance is a male trait (I wish I was joking).

While it’s often a struggle to gain significant female representation in the first place, we also rapidly lose women from STEMM fields with each stage of seniority. In science, more than 50% of undergraduate students, PhD graduates and early career researchers are women, yet only 17% of senior academics in Australian research institutes and universities identify as female.

Where are all the women and where do they go?

Barriers exist and these need to be dismantled in order to encourage more women into STEMM fields in the first place. Science and technology are inherently sexist and biased and have classically been considered male domains. Even when I was a kid and struggling with maths at school I apparently proclaimed to my mum: ‘oh but I’m a girl and maths is for boys’. Mortifying. But these stereotypes and gender biases are everywhere: that wasn’t something I was taught, but picked up somewhere and didn’t think to question.

And it was totally wrong: there’s zero evidence for cognitive difference in mathematical ability between the genders. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Londa Schiebinger, professor of History of Science at Stanford, wrote in Nature a couple of years ago about the social dangers and potential harms of the unconscious sex and gender bias in science. Take automotive engineering, for example, in which short people (many women, but also men) are often ignored, leading to greater injury in accidents. In basic biomedical research the failure to use female cells and tissues can lead to greater health risks for females. Drug development costs billions of dollars and lives are at stake: better to not forget half the global population, right? What’s more, computer algorithms are only as unbiased as those who program them. And if the programmers are all male, these biases are inevitable.

Getting women into STEMM is one challenge, keeping them there is another. Success in science requires long hours of work, focus and great competitiveness. Equity in the workplace is important, but so are sufficient supportive measures for when many of these women would like to have children and start a family. Children shouldn’t have to mean the end of a woman’s career in STEMM, but in 2017 this is still a setback.

Why should we care about this?

Without equal representation of the sexes and diversity in STEMM fields we lose over 50% of the talent pool. The best minds need to stay in the fields in which they have the most potential to deliver. This is vital for maintaining research and development excellence; it’s vital for progress. We won’t progress if we deny ourselves of extraordinary ability and squander our intellectual capital like this. We also won’t progress without diversity amongst the ranks of our innovators. Amazingly, more than a quarter of Australia’s economy can be attributed to scientific advances over the past 20-30 years. That’s an annual addition of $330 billion to our national wealth.

Progress impacts everyone in society; this is not just an issue for women. The government spends millions of taxpayer dollars to train women scientists. These women need to be supported in their careers, and not hindered, if we are to ensure real social and economic return from this enormous investment in one of our greatest natural resources: intelligence.

What needs to be done and how can we do it?

Donald Trump may now grace the White House with his temperamental orange hues, but don’t let that get you down. There are an increasing number of initiatives in place with the aim to tackling gender inequality in STEMM, like Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) and the Athena SWAN Charter, Women in STEM Australia and the International Day for Women and Girls in Science (Google them!).

Excitingly at home, Brisbane’s QIMR Berghofer, one of Australia’s largest medical research institutes, recently introduced a scheme to attract and retain its female scientists. Women with at least one child in primary school will receive an annual payment of $10,000, guaranteed spots at a nearby childcare centre and access to a breastfeeding room and there’ll be dedicated carparks for women in their final term of pregnancy. At QIMR Berghofer women account for 36% of scientific leadership roles, and hopefully this can be boosted with the extra support.

Mentorship and childcare support are also very important. We need more women to be inspiring science teachers, entrepreneurs, executives, policy-makers and editors.

There’s a long way to go to equality in STEMM, but we can certainly get there.

Keep an eye out for the first STEMM Trails post, accompanied by the artwork of incredible Charlie Gurman, up on the blog this Friday 24th February!

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The STEMM Trails Team

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CLAIRE BARNES

Claire is a third year postgraduate medical student at UQ. She moved to Brisbane two years ago from Adelaide (via Sydney, where she completed her degree in medical science) and loves it here. You can usually find her doing something outdoors-y, at one of her favourite cafés (neither of which have A/C to escape the heat, but we all have to make sacrifices), or enjoying a casual beverage somewhere, usually in West End. She also fits in some study along the way, enjoys live music and wishes she owned a cat. Claire is passionate about intersectional feminism, global gender equity, politics and STEMMinism.

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CHARLIE GURMAN

Charlie Gurman is an aspiring illustrator/graphic designer operating out of a tiny studio apartment in the heart of Mount Lawley, Perth. Focusing predominantly on the female form, her work is a contrast of gentle, honest line work paired with bold, obnoxious palettes that draw inspiration from the fashion-conscious femmes observed on commutes to and from Northbridge and the surrounding suburbs.


Featured Image: Anna Apuli of Crapuli

Words: Claire Barnes

Edits: Emma Kate Lewis

One Response

  1. […] Stemm Trails is an ongoing series – read about who, how, and why it started on the introductory post here. […]

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