Don’t let young women ‘just get on with it’

This year Australia, and particularly our scientific community, was ecstatic at the naming of Prof Michelle Simmons as Australian of the Year. Her work in quantum computing at the University of New South Wales, and launching Australia into ‘the space race of the computing era’ makes her a more than worthy recipient of this award.

In her acceptance speech, Prof Simmons spoke of the unique Australian culture and how it manifests in an academic environment. Importantly, she also spoke of her experiences as a woman in STEM. Prof Simmons declared that she found it useful to be under-estimated due to her gender, because she has subsequently “flown under the radar… and been able to get on with it”. She then encouraged young people to ignore what others thought of them, to defy expectations.

Whilst this advice is inspiring – that you can do anything regardless of what people think of you – we owe it to ourselves and future generations to have a deeper conversation about this, and change our behaviours.

Despite knowing the insidious and persistent nature of gender bias and inequity in STEM systems, processes, and cultures, we still expect so much more of young women than we do of young men – that they continuously defy expectations, excel and remain in STEM, despite what they have to experience. This double standard is currently the status quo and will continue for years to come if we don’t change the conversation today.

In 2018, it should be reasonable to expect that young women could enter the STEM workforce and get a ‘fair go’. However, such is not life for these young women, and we need to change this. Young women shouldn’t have to put up with the ugly manifestations of gender bias in schools and workplaces. They shouldn’t have to just get on with it.

There should be no biased expectations to defy in the first place.

On this International Day of Women and Girls in Science, I urge all of us to hold a higher standard for our expectations – not of young women – but of everyone’s behaviour in our industry and educational institutions. The standard we walk past is the standard we accept. If we do not challenge biased expectations of what young women and men should or shouldn’t do, be, or achieve, we endorse gender bias and inequity, and it will always remain the status quo.

So, instead of telling young women – who are already pretty tough and resilient – to just get on with it, let’s change the conversation. Let’s step up and fix what they have to deal with in the first place.

If not us, then who? If not now, then when? – John Lewis

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