As the nation wraps up a week of celebrating science, it looks to its women – who make up half of all PhD science graduates, yet only 17 per cent of those who continue on a long term career.
A multitude of events recognising the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) were held throughout Australia and the south-west this week, but as the nation-wide celebration comes to an end, the disparity between men and women in the industry is still evident.
Women occupy less than one in five senior researcher positions in Australian universities and research institutes; and make up only a quarter of the workforce overall.
At Warrnambool’s Deakin University, there are 40 women currently enrolled in undergraduate and post graduate science-based courses. The numbers are promising, but if the statistics are right, less than 20 per cent of those women will hold a senior position or continue long term employment.
Victoria’s lead scientist Dr Amanda Caples said one of the biggest problems was in career progression, with a serious gender gap appearing about mid-career.
She said participation at undergraduate and graduate levels was balanced between men and women, but that female scientists, who choose to start a family, were experiencing disruption.
“What you see is that as people’s careers start to progress, the men advance to more of a senior level and the women just drop off,” she said.
“Particularly women in research who take time off to raise a family. The disruption in their career means they lose that continuity, which disrupts the progress of achieving grants and advancing a project.
“The biggest hurdle for women is overcoming that disruption and returning to the workforce with confidence.”
Dr Caples said a new initiative titled STEM sidebyside was designed to empower women at different career stages including university students, mid-career emerging leaders and women returning to work.
“We are seeking to minimise the hurdles that women face, but at the end of the day the hurdles are there, so we need to focus on how we can help them pick themselves up on the other side,” she said.
Warrnambol’s Pia Cotter said despite her tertiary education being female dominated, she now worked alongside mainly men.
“I do, however, know of a number of women in similar roles to me within the region,” she said.
“And for me, there are absolutely as many doors open as there are for the blokes I work with.”
Ms Cotter has a Bachelor of Animal and Veterinary Bio-sciences, is completing a Masters in Animal Ruminant Production and is employed at Ridley AgriProducts.
She said she was fortunate to work for a company that was very accommodating of women with children.
“We have a mother of triplets who runs a dairy farm and still manages the Gippsland region on top of that, so I think it’s doable.”
‘Cool to be a smart chick’
Sarah Moran has a goal to teach one million women to learn technology by 2025.
The co-founder of Girl Geeks Academy runs face-to-face programs dedicated to boosting the number of women leading successful careers in STEM fields.
She said the industry wasn’t there yet in terms of equal gender representation and gender equality.
“At the moment 51 per cent of Australian game-players are women and only 19 per cent of games are built by women,” Ms Moran said.
“There’s a disparity there. We see similar trends in technology and I think the future is female for technology.”
Victoria’s lead scientist Dr Amanda Caples said women were making a valuable contribution to gaming in recent years.
“This is because they see things from a different perspective and they add so much value to the visual creative side of things,” she said.
“That is evident in a gaming company called Opaque Media, which runs a virtual reality game where you can walk on the moon. One of the key members of that team is a woman and a lot of creativity and knowledge has come from her.”
Ms Moran said there needed to be more women building, creating and participating in technology.
“It is definitely cool to be a smart chick,” she said.
“(Technology) isn’t coding alone in a bedroom, it’s grabbing a cup of tea and cake and building something awesome with your friends.”
Warrnambool Art Gallery director Vanessa Gerrans is another woman who has joined the push to invigorate the numbers of girls in STEM careers.
As recipient of a Victorian Government grant for $50,000, the city’s arts hub has committed to encouraging female STEM learning through exhibitions and workshops.
Ms Gerrans said a number of focus, made up of educators, industry professionals and students, would guide and form the direction of the project.
“We will then offer a variety of activities, sessions and workshops through existing and new partnerships – Robotics Academy Warrnambool, Geek Girl Academy and the Academy of Interactive Entertainment,” she said.
“There will also be a large outdoor screen which will showcase a range of creative outputs and digital inspirations.”
Ms Gerrans said the workshops were specifically tailored to reach a young, female audience and were aimed at engaging the students and leading them to feel more confident in their abilities.
“An important aspect of this project is also for girls to see strong female role models,” she said.
Girls encouraged to consider career in IT
Gender stereotypes in the IT industry have been banished at an event celebrating women in science.
More than 40 girls from Brauer College woke up at 3.30am on Thursday to attend the biennial event, Go Girl, Go For IT at Deakin University in Melbourne.
The program, which is the largest free Australian event of its kind, aims to inspire female students to consider a career in IT.
Studies show that only three per cent of school girls are considering an IT career and only one in four IT graduates are female.
Year 10 student Rachel Johnstone, 16, said the event totally changed her perception of the industry, with lecturers speaking about everything from data and coding to cyber safety and outer space.
Students participated in workshops, checked out cool new gadgets and were exposed to possible technology careers while listening to inspiring speakers, such as Ally Watson – a developer, computer science graduate and co-founder of Code Like a Girl.
Ms Watson said after falling into computer science she felt “quite alone in a sea of men.”
“So it’s exciting that these kind of events exist now, where we can show young girls that yes, they can have a cool career in IT and there are so many versions of what that might look like,” she said.
“It’s a really special thing to be a part of.”
Year 10 coordinator Delia Jenkins said students from years seven to 10 attended the eye-opening event.
“At the beginning of the day, students were asked what they thought of when they thought about IT, and a lot of them said it reminded them of a geeky guy in a dark room on a computer,” she said.
“At the end of the day their perception had really changed after realising that most career pathways come back to technology.”
Have you signed up to The Standard's daily newsletter and breaking news emails? You can register below and make sure you are up to date with everything that's happening in south-west.