Inspiring girls and women into STEM

I wrote this article for the “In their words” section of the ANU Reporter published November 2017.

We don’t need to inspire more young girls and women into STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

We need to stop telling them they can’t do it in the first place.

Telling girls and young women that they need to become interested in STEM, as though they never were or couldn’t naturally be and so need more encouragement, reinforces a shallow understanding of the insidious contributors to gender inequity in STEM.

We need to remove the systemic cultural biases in society and STEM industries that prevent women from entering and staying in STEM, instead of putting the onus on women and girls to be ‘interested’.

Girls aren’t born with an affinity for humanities over STEM; as a society, we encourage gender segregation into subjects from an early age. Little girls are often given books and dolls to play with, whereas little boys are given trucks and construction sets that can help develop fine motor and visual-spatial reasoning skills.

This bias, even in toy making, is what prompted the business, GoldieBlox, a construction toy which is design to develop young girls’ interest in engineering and confidence in problem solving to ‘disrupt the pink aisle’. It is one small step to fix a very big problem.

Gender stereotypes and bias start when children are born, the consequences of which continues to affect STEM participation of young girls and women throughout their life. For example, a Microsoft study found that in Europe girls become interested in STEM subjects around the age of 11 and they start to lose interest when they are 15 years old. This same study found that girls’ interest in humanities subjects also drops at the same age, but rebounds sharply.

This shows us the loss of interest in STEM subjects is not natural – not when it happens with such volume that means we only have 16 per cent female undergraduate engineering students in Australia. Gender stereotypes, and a lack of visible role models and practical hands-on experience, were cited as key reasons for the low participation rate/attrition of young girls from STEM subjects.

You can’t be what you can’t see. How many examples of female scientists or engineers do young girls see when they are at school?

When I was in school, we learnt about Charles Darwin, Nicolaus Copernicus, Nikola Tesla, Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei and Albert Einstein. I urge parents, teachers, older siblings and the media to equally represent men and women as role models in STEM.

This year Science & Technology Australia has launched the inaugural Superstars of STEM program, of which I am thrilled to be a participant. The program aims to increase the profile of 30 women with STEM PhDs, to change the image of STEM in Australia. This increased visibility will contribute to normalising, not female scientists and engineers, but scientists and engineers who are also female (because, have you ever heard Albert Einstein described as a ‘male scientist’?).

I have spent the most part of my time in STEM trying to be what I can’t see, and this needs to change.

We – universities, STEM companies, parents, siblings, teachers and the media – need to work together to ensure that the next generation of change makers, creators and disruptors (also known as engineers!) have a more diverse range of role models to show them the path forward.

Because, you can’t be what you can’t see.

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