Closing the science gender gap: we need to increase the public presence of women in STEM by Dr. Megan Sebben, CDM Smith

Dr Megan Sebben, hydrogeologist and groundwater modeller at the water and environmental services firm, CDM Smith

Closing the science gender gap: we need to increase the public presence of women in STEM

by Dr. Megan Sebben, CDM Smith

I wasn’t one of those kids who knew what they wanted to do when they grew up. In fact, at 28, I’m still not exactly sure what I want to do.  I’ve always had a passion for solving problems; particularly small ones like saving the planet (it’s a work in progress). Fast track a couple of decades and I’ve somehow completed a PhD in Hydrogeology and am working as a hydrogeologist/ groundwater modeller at the water and environmental services firm, CDM Smith. Like many women working in the science,
technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, I’ve become used to working in a male-dominated environment. I would be lying if I said this  didn’t have its challenges. That’s why I’m so encouraged by the work of groups such as Women in Coastal Geosciences and Engineering who support women to be successful in these fields. But how do we encourage our next generation of young women to pursue a career in STEM?

Speaking from my own experience, I never even contemplated a career as a scientist, despite being so interested in the world around me. Is this because young women generally aren’t interested in STEM? Well, no. Because there is plenty of evidence to suggest that young women are both interested and highly capable in STEM subjects. The STEM fields appear to be in crisis. The cause being, a lack of female role models in the public space and our own cultural and implicit biases. Add to that a lack of self-confidence amongst young women and we have a major problem.

There are some incredible science communicators out there who do an extraordinary job of bringing science to the public (Brian Cox, David Attenborough, Neil de Grasse Tyson, Karl Kruszelnicki and Adam Spencer to name a few). But how does an eight-year-old school girl with an interest in creepy crawlies, or a 16-year-old with an interest in astrophysics, look at these roles models and imagine herself in that position? Why aren’t presenters like the amazing Professor Emma Johnston gaining the same traction? And more importantly, have we stopped to think about the consequences of this? The growth of jobs requiring STEM skills far outweighs the growth in other areas. So, can we really afford to push this issue aside and accept that in the future, male students will have more job opportunities available to them than their female counterparts? If the answer to that question is no, then what can we do about it? Increasing the public presence of women in STEM is part of that solution, but a broad-scale change in culture is required. Perhaps these young women have never encountered a female scientist or engineer in their personal lives? This shouldn’t come as a surprise when you consider that in Australia, only 17% of professors are women (despite having a much higher percentage of junior female academics). Systemic failures, including a lack of work flexibility and clear gender pay gaps, deter and prevent the longevity of women’s scientific careers. They are of course a cause for concern, but that’s a whole other blog topic.

Studies have demonstrated that between the ages of nine and 11, two thirds of primary school students will draw a man if they are asked to draw a scientist. So, while school-based efforts to address gender bias and stereotyping are critical (the Curious Minds program and CSIRO’s Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools are fantastic examples), we need to step even further back, because by the time children are ready to attend primary school we are already losing the battle. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that implicit and cultural biases in STEM are already firmly cemented when we consider the way that children’s products, such as toys and clothes, are marketed differently for boys and girls. I remember distinctly now, and somewhat disturbingly, my beloved talking Barbie doll who happily uttered the words, “math class is hard,” and “let’s go shopping!”

The empowerment of our future women in STEM must start at home and in the community. Our language, actions and expectations of our daughters (and sons) are capable of long-term impacts that will change society for the better. For the women reading this blog, I strongly encourage you to consider your role as a mentor, whether that’s to your graduate students or as a parent volunteer in your child’s school. For many young women in primary or high school, the self-critical voice speaks so loudly and clearly, that it leaves them doubting their abilities to be successful in STEM related subjects. What could be more empowering for a student than engaging with a mentor or role model who tells them, ‘of course you can.’

We need to create space in the public domain to recognise the incredible contributions of women in STEM. I am extremely proud to have been involved in the ‘Illuminating the face of STEM’ event co-ordinated by STEM: Women Branching Out at Flinders University. The group ran a week-long event, which profiled some of Australia’s women in STEM in celebration of National Science Week. Most members of the public we encountered during this event admitted that they were unable to think of a single female scientist until witnessing the display. Rather than be disheartened by this, I am encouraged to see that change is occurring, albeit slowly. Collectively, we are moving in the right direction but this isn’t the time to become complacent.

Dr Megan Sebben

Megan is Melbourne-based hydrogeologist and groundwater modeller at the water and environmental services firm, CDM Smith. She obtained a PhD in Groundwater Hydrology from Flinders University, where she used numerical models to examine contaminant transport in complex geologic environments, focussing primarily on the phenomenon of seawater intrusion. Her international experience includes a research stay at Leibniz University in Germany, and presentations at conferences in Europe and the United States.

Megan is a passionate science communicator, mentor, and advocate for gender equity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Megan enjoys anything adventurous, dance, and spending time with her friends and family.

Find out more about Megan’s research here.

View images from ‘Illuminating the face of STEM’

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