Today, 11 February 2016, is the first ever International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a day to celebrate the dedicated women and their many accomplishments in this conventionally male-dominated scientific community.
The achievements of women in all areas of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) have historically been very poorly acknowledged compared to the achievements of male colleagues. Their roles and contributions to major scientific breakthroughs have been diminished, with male colleagues often receiving the accolades and rewards for their hard work. This is changing, but slowly.
Last year, Nicole Kidman played Rosalind Franklin in a West End play that tells the story of female molecular biologist who developed experiments showing the structure of DNA. A project that ironically was only really acknowledged after she’d died, when her male colleagues were awarded the Nobel Prize.
This is why it’s so important that we celebrate days like today. In the United Nations dedication, they state that science and gender equality are both vital to achieving international sustainable development. They acknowledge that while the global community has made a lot of effort in inspiring and engaging women and girls in science over the past two decades or so, they continue to be excluded from participating fully.
According to a UN study conducted across 14 countries, the probability for female students of graduating with a Bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree and Doctor’s degree in science-related fields are 18%, 8% and 2% respectively, while the percentages of male students are 37%, 18% and 6%.
That’s just not good enough. And it needs to change.
In Australia, we celebrate that we have more equal participation in our education system than many countries across the world. But, the sad fact is that in areas of science where women graduates and early career researchers actually out-number men, only 17 per cent progress to become senior academics and research leaders.
Similar trends are seen across the business sector where women’s representation at senior leadership levels are abysmal.
The loss of women from their chosen profession or career path, often described as a ‘sideways’ move into a more ‘secure’ position, is what has been coined ‘the silent brain-drain’. It costs the community, especially the taxpayers, in the loss of investment in training, productivity and future potential discoveries or innovations that these women could contribute to.
This of course relates only to those girls who overcome the barriers to study STEM in the first place. Our societal stereotypes of ‘you need a man to fix that’ when referring to mechanical tasks, or ‘he is such a tech geek’ and even the classic ‘women are bad drivers’, are contributing to the message that studying STEM subjects are not things that girls do well or should be doing at all.
Challenging these stereotypes is a task for all of us, not just the teachers and parents but the mainstream media and community influences that girls look up to and hear every single day. We should be encouraging young women to feel safe in making whatever career choices they want.
Gender inequity is more and more being recognised by many businesses and organisations as an impediment to their own success and more and more industry leaders are proactively trying to address the problem of low participation rates of women across all levels.
This is slowly translating to the STEM sector but it needs a nudge. There are currently thirty-two Australian institutions, including eight in Victoria, that are taking part in the “Science in Australia Gender Equity” pilot initiative. This pilot evaluates, accredits and enables workplaces to identify barriers and implement change where needed in order to improve gender equality and enhance women’s leadership.
These initiatives need to be universal. To affect the cultural change we want, we need to be unbroken in our support for women who are in leadership roles, we need to encourage those who are establishing their careers and we need to promote the learning of all disciplines to young girls.
That’s why here in Victoria the Andrews Government is currently leading by example and requiring that no less than 50 per cent of all appointments to paid Government boards and Victorian courts will be women.
We are also developing the state’s first ever Gender Equality Strategy.
A strategy will be designed by Victorians, for Victorians so that we may work together to reach equality for our community.
I look forward to having more to say on this in the near future but for now we need women to tell us, the policy-makers, what they want to change and what they need to see before they feel like they are a genuinely equal part of this society.
Note - Submissions for the Consultation Paper for Victoria’s first Gender Equality Strategy close on 18 March 2016 – please visit the DPC website to contribute.