Science Matters: Women in Science! What’s all the fuss about?

Imbalance: Women are under-represented in the field of science, particularly in leadership and executive decision making roles.
Imbalance: Women are under-represented in the field of science, particularly in leadership and executive decision making roles.

February is a pretty special and exciting month for a lot of women in the community – and no, not because of Valentine’s day (although that’s quite nice too). February 11 is the United Nations International Day of Women and Girls in Science. It’s quite a mouthful. But why do we even need a day for women and girls in science?

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (collectively called STEM) has historically largely been the domain of men. Most people, when asked about famous scientists, can rattle off a list of male scientists – Einstein, Newton, Darwin, Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson…the list goes on. But a survey held a couple of years ago showed that a quarter of people were unable to name even a single female scientist (try it – can you?). 

Sorry to bore you with numbers, but the data from the Department of Education and training around the number of women studying science isn’t overly encouraging. Only 33% of students studying a STEM bachelor degree at University are women. And when it comes to who is teaching them? The majority are men – 43% of academic staff are women, but the majority of these women are employed at lower academic levels. Once you reach the level of full professor, the highest level in academia, women account for only 20%.

To cut a long story short, fewer women go into science than men, and of those that do, they are less likely to work in leadership and executive decision making roles. As a woman in science myself, I find these statistics a bit depressing!

To cut a long story short, fewer women go into science than men, and of those that do, they are less likely to work in leadership and executive decision making roles.

So what is being done to even out this gender imbalance in science?

Well, for a start, there is a growing awareness around the issues of women in science, beginning with things like the UN day for women and girls in science. We also now have a Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) program, which is looking at gender equity policies and practices in Australian institutions, and awarding institutions which can demonstrate a commitment to hiring, retaining and promoting women.

The Australian Government has just announced that there will be further funding for its Superstars of STEM program, which is training women scientists as role models for the next generation. And we are seeing more and more programs, including camps, workshops and mentoring programs, which target girls early on while they are still in school, to foster an interest and enthusiasm for science subjects. 

Is it working?

I think it is too soon to tell. Change can unfortunately take a long time. I really do hope that when we revisit the statistics in five years, 10 years, or 20 years time, we start to see a real shift towards equality of the sexes. But for now this increased awareness and visibility around gender issues is making it a really exciting time to be a woman in science.