I wasn’t one of those kids who knew what they wanted to do when they grew up. In fact, at 28, I’m still not exactly sure what I want to do. I’ve always had a passion for solving problems; particularly small ones like saving the planet (it’s a work in progress). Fast track a couple of decades and I’ve somehow completed a PhD in Hydrogeology and am working as a hydrogeologist/ groundwater modeller at the water and environmental services firm, CDM Smith. Like many women working in the science,
technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, I’ve become used to working in a male-dominated environment. I would be lying if I said this didn’t have its challenges. That’s why I’m so encouraged by the work of groups such as Women in Coastal Geosciences and Engineering who support women to be successful in these fields. But how do we encourage our next generation of young women to pursue a career in STEM?
Speaking from my own experience, I never even contemplated a career as a scientist, despite being so interested in the world around me. Is this because young women generally aren’t interested in STEM? Well, no. Because there is plenty of evidence to suggest that young women are both interested and highly capable in STEM subjects. The STEM fields appear to be in crisis. The cause being, a lack of female role models in the public space and our own cultural and implicit biases. Add to that a lack of self-confidence amongst young women and we have a major problem.
There are some incredible science communicators out there who do an extraordinary job of bringing science to the public (Brian Cox, David Attenborough, Neil de Grasse Tyson, Karl Kruszelnicki and Adam Spencer to name a few). But how does an eight-year-old school girl with an interest in creepy crawlies, or a 16-year-old with an interest in astrophysics, look at these roles models and imagine herself in that position? Why aren’t presenters like the amazing Professor Emma Johnston gaining the same traction? And more importantly, have we stopped to think about the consequences of this? The growth of jobs requiring STEM skills far outweighs the growth in other areas. So, can we really afford to push this issue aside and accept that in the future, male students will have more job opportunities available to them than their female counterparts? If the answer to that question is no, then what can we do about it? Increasing the public presence of women in STEM is part of that solution, but a broad-scale change in culture is required. Perhaps these young women have never encountered a female scientist or engineer in their personal lives? This shouldn’t come as a surprise when you consider that in Australia, only 17% of professors are women (despite having a much higher percentage of junior female academics). Systemic failures, including a lack of work flexibility and clear gender pay gaps, deter and prevent the longevity of women’s scientific careers. They are of course a cause for concern, but that’s a whole other blog topic.