You can’t be what you can’t see

I delivered this speech to the Male Champions of Change STEM forum at the National Press Club on the 11th October 2017.

You can’t be what you can’t see.

I didn’t grow up seeing engineers and scientists, or knowing what they did on a day-to-day basis. I grew up seeing what teachers and lawyers did, so of course I wanted to be a teacher and lawyer.

I only enrolled in engineering and science at uni because my dad suggested it to me. Once I was at uni, I realized I liked solving problems – and that’s what engineers did. I continued to do a PhD because that was the biggest problem I had been given yet – how could we use materials to manipulate the complex scar formation that occurs after traumatic brain injury? This topic required that I bring together areas including materials engineering, mechanics, biology, chemistry, and advanced microscopy. It was technically challenging, but navigating the muddy waters of academic politics and collaborations, managing up, managing downwards, and communicating on an international stage really made a PhD just like riding a bike. And the bike was on fire.

I can tell you I now know how to develop materials that mimic the structure of the brain. I know how to modify the behavior of cells using my materials. I know how to get those brain cells by dissecting a baby mouse brain the size of your little fingernail. My PhD in tissue engineering has given me a broad and unique set of STEM skills. But to me, although my STEM education and research has given me a skillset, tools, and a way of thinking, it’s only when I pair them with my communication skills, emotional intelligence, and reflective ability, that I can solve problems to make a better world in a way most people can’t.

When we frame STEM like this, we really shouldn’t struggle with poor female representation, because who wouldn’t be interested in that? But we do struggle. It isn’t a case of natural affinity to subjects or self-selection out of them – it is because you can’t be what you can’t see. And young girls see a whole lot of gender stereotypes and not a lot of female role models in STEM.

Gender stereotypes are reinforced at early ages through the toys we give children. Boys are given things they can build, whereas girls are given toys they can look after. This is what young girls see every day of their childhood, and the gender stereotypes in these toys affect them long after they grow up. We are slowly seeing toys like Goldieblox disrupt the pink aisle and help develop visual-spatial reasoning skills in young girls through engineering.

However, developing these skills early on isn’t of much use if these young women don’t end up studying STEM in high school and university. A 2015 Microsoft study found that a lack of visible role models for young women was a key contributor to the low female representation in STEM. Visibility matters, and right now, women don’t have enough of it. This is why I am honoured to be one of thirty Australian women in Science and Technology Australia’s Superstars of STEM, a program changing the face of STEM in Australia.

Visibility is key to not just young women, but also to show young (and older) men that STEM is for everyone, not just those who look like them. STEM cultures that do not include women or other minorities still prevail in universities and industry today, and it is a crucial factor in the poor retention of women in STEM. Our experience is best characterized as “death by a thousand cuts”.

In my first week at university my Honours maths lecturer told me I was not smart enough to do his course and that I should drop out. I have been the only woman in labs and tutorials where my peers and tutors struggled to talk to me, compromising my learning experience, and demeaned my achievements due to my gender. I’ve had my biological clock consistently commented on by senior academics – in open plan office and lab spaces, demonstrating this supposedly acceptable behavior to my peers.

It was only during my PhD that I realized that I was in a system that was not designed to include me, and if I were to survive – not even thrive – to just survive, I would have to adapt to the system, and that wasn’t how I wanted to start off my career.

I left engineering academic research because I couldn’t see a clear pathway for me to succeed and still be myself. A lack of visible female roles models with whom I could identify had a significant impact on my career choice. Overwhelmed by a total of three female academics in my Department – although none in my research area or even in my building, I realized this scarcity was really a problem that needed to be fixed 30 years ago, so I looked to the future. In 2015 I founded Fifty50 at the ANU with Emily Campbell to deliver mentoring and career development programs for students, as well as a suite of educational and awareness raising activities to create an inclusive and equitable STEM pipeline for students at university and as they move on to industry or academia, regardless of their gender. We are changing the culture of STEM to make my experience a thing of the past. We are making inclusion the norm, not the exception.

After my PhD I moved into industry in the hopes of finding a system that would adapt to me, not the other way around. I only see myself staying in STEM because I think STEM itself is changing. It is becoming more integrated with many other fields, and you need to be able to move across and within many disciplines and work with a diversity of people. What we do has an impact on our community, our country, and our world, and I want to be a part of that.

But right now, for me, glass cliffs and glass ceilings are what I see as an inevitability, not a possibility. When I look ahead, I still see so few women where I would like to be, and so I am hyper-vigilant to recognize and mitigate all the ways I know unconscious gender bias manifests in workplace systems, processes, and cultures. Trying to be something I still can’t see is challenging but I am doing my best at wayfinding. I want to be as impactful as I can be, championing for gender equity in STEM, because I want the next generation’s prospects to be a given, and not dependent of whether they can navigate the minefields of unconscious bias in the workplace.

This morning I started off with “you can’t be what you can’t see”. My experience has been trying to be something I can’t see, and at times it is bloody hard. So, I know that when we demand gender equity in STEM, it can be hard because, in Australia, we haven’t really seen it before. I think we need to see more, so we can be more.

Do you think your organisations can be what they can’t see? Can they be the change when they can’t see the change?

The change I am talking about – gender equity in STEM – isn’t just for women. It is for every single person in every single organization.

Imagine the future, and then let’s take the invisibility out of it.

Now, I know I am in the company of some pretty good problems solvers who could tackle this issue of invisible change, but, for the sake of contributing to the cognitive diversity of the room, let me suggest a few prompts that could get you started.

Show me your army.

For this to work – for us to truly achieve gender equity, we need you, but we also need your army. Who are they? Change requires a movement, not a mandate. We need a critical mass: change occurs when 75% managers think the status quo is more dangerous than changing. We all know that is true, but who else in your organization does? They are your army. I hope you’ve been recruiting.

I then ask that you protect the voices of change from below.

Who actually embodies the change you want? As someone who is an early career member of the STEM community, I urge all of you to engage and leverage the passion, creativity, and purpose of the young people in your organization. Movements need leadership – and we can all be leaders. Leaders are not just in the C-suite; leaders are followers, leaders are middle management, and leaders are your graduate cohort.

I am not asking you to empower these voices. They already have power of their own. I am asking you to listen, protect, and utilize the voices of change from below.

Don’t give me your words, give me your actions.

Your statements of support are nice and everything, but on a day-to-day basis, they don’t make any difference to my experience, or the experience of thousands of women elsewhere.

As engineers and scientists, you don’t do tokenism. Neither do I.

You do results. So do I.

We all know how easy it is for change to be delayed – it is hardly ever comfortable, so we need to be highly observant of barriers and blockers, and mitigate them before they can delay the change that has already been delayed for decades.

Only when we see the change can we be the change. So don’t give me your words, give me your actions.

Finally, I ask that you be brave, that you be bold, and that you don’t look back.

It’s only through the bold actions that we see change.

What if universities only accepted a 50/50 undergraduate intake of first years in engineering or computer science?

What if we accelerated the careers of women so child bearing years didn’t coincide with crucial career defining years?

What if we treated parenting as a partnership instead of having a primary and a secondary carer?

Imagine the difference that would make.

Imagine what young girls tomorrow would be able to see.

Imagine what young girls tomorrow could be.

Bold steps are by definition, highly committed. They are also highly contentious and give rise to arguments. But right now, I am asking for boldness from all of you.

Be brave, be bold, and don’t look back. This boldness will allow us to truly see the meaningful change we all crave. We need to see the change to be the change.

Because, as we all know, you can’t be what you can’t see.

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