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International Day of Women and Girls in Science

According to UNESCO, women in STEM fields publish less, are paid less for their research and do not progress as far as men in their careers. As such, it is not surprising that less than 30 per cent of researchers worldwide are women and only 35 per cent of all students enrolled in STEM-related fields of study are women. Despite these obstacles, women and girls continue to lead the way as researchers, practitioners, teachers, mentors and communicators.

In celebration of International Day of Women and Girls in Science, 11 February 2021, we are pleased to introduce some of these leaders from among the ESA community. 

Leanda is a tertiary educator and conservation ecology researcher at Curtin University. She is an IUCN Young Fellow and a committee member of the Royal Society of Western Australia and the Ecological Society of Australia where she is a driving force behind many of ESA's programs to support early career and LGBTQI+ ecologists.

What made you choose a career in the sciences? 

If I am honest, it was probably a high Biology mark in high school. However, it might have been that I had a high Biology mark in high school because I was interested in the subject, and really liked my teacher. I was not particularly studious if I didn’t like the subject or teacher, and nearly failed English due to my dyslexia. My mother taught social sciences, and my father taught chemistry and physics so I suppose biology falls somewhere in between. We also spent the formative years of my life in a caravan near Laverton – a remote town in Western Australia, which may be why I love being out in the field oh-so-much and why ecology and conservation in particular appealed to me for university study. My original plan was to become a teacher after doing my undergraduate degree, but I met a lady called Dr Barbara York Main who in-spider-ed me to continue with my honours and PhD on her trapdoor spider subjects.

Who are some of your most-admired women in science?

Dr Barbara York Main. Her dedication despite (or perhaps in spite of) the many barriers presented to women in academia was beyond admirable. But while she often presented a hardened exterior and did not suffer fools gladly, she was incredibly passionate and tender when it came to her spiders (and me when experiencing hardship in my personal life during my honours). Having been in the academic sphere for about 12 years now, I do admire *anyone* who can remain simultaneously strong and compassionate in such a competitive and sometimes toxic environment. There are other women such as Lyn Beazley and Deborah Terry whom I believe – based on limited interactions - also embody such strength and compassion. I find them inspiring in a different way from Barbara’s quiet dedication as they have progressed to leadership positions and represent women in a more public sphere. Personally though, the most admired women in my life are those that are strong, genuinely caring, and have high levels of integrity. In science I believe these are essential traits for constructive collaboration.

What would be your advice to other women considering a career in STEM? 

Scientific endeavours and discovery makes science an exciting and rewarding discipline to be involved with, and I truly love doing my spider research. However, there are downsides that I feel the need to be discussed more; science does not occur in an objective, and isolated sphere of safety – we must consider the socio-cultural context of when, where and how we do science. As women I think it is particularly important to learn when to say ‘no’, seek support, and have firm boundaries. There are still some discipline areas within STEM that are male-dominated, and these will be difficult for many reasons. Some of these difficulties will be smaller issues like saying ‘no’ to some opportunities to have a healthy work-life balance. But some of these difficulties may be more serious for women. I am not only speaking of sexual discrimination and female-role stereotyping, but more serious instances like harassment and overt hostility or threatening behaviour. These issues are much more prevalent for those with intersectional disadvantages such as (but not limited to) women of colour, disabled and LGBTQI+ identifying. As an out and queer non-binary womanly figured person, I am familiar with some of these issues personally. Having firm boundaries as to what level of stress one can tolerate is also important – look after yourself, especially your mental health. Leave if you feel unsafe. Do not report offenders if you feel unsafe doing so. Do not blame yourself for what has happened to you – this is a part of trauma not the reality of the situation. Your career goals are not worth the associated trauma. Go where you are valued and supported. The statistics surrounding such issues for women in male-dominated workplaces is damning, but with awareness and proactive strength and solidarity I believe it will get better for future women and other discriminated groups.

What would you like to see change in the future to help improve the number of women pursuing a career in STEM?

Safe work environments. It is distressing to me, the sheer number of cases that either go unreported due to lack of support, or are reported and subsequently covered up. I would like to see this be specifically, and transparently addressed in academic careers of STEM, but also throughout all career pathways. An active, top-down and more punitive approach to offenders with greater support for victims would be a positive change.

Tina is an ecologist and PhD candidate, currently working for Bush Heritage Australia at Eurardy Reserve. As part of this role, she manages the implementation of the 1 million-tree project, which will see nearly 2700 ha of cleared land restored.

What made you choose a career in the sciences? 

A love for nature and a very strong passion and desire to protect our environment. Science is a wonderful toolkit that can help us understand how nature works and what we can do to conserve it.

Who are some of your most-admired women in science?

I most admire pioneer women scientists who, despite societies stigmas and other difficulties, pursued their passion in science and led the way for many of us today.

What would be your advice to other women considering a career in STEM? 

If you love and feel passionate about your chosen field, just go for it! You will find ways to overcome any hurdles and obstacles that get thrown at you, and you will get rewarded with a very enjoyable and interesting career.

What would you like to see change in the future to help improve the number of women pursuing a career in STEM?

Continue to work on demolishing the stigma that STEM is more suitable for males; engage, encourage girls from an early age and provide plenty of opportunities for your women; paid maternity leave and flexible working arrangements for working parents in STEM.

Caragh is an ARC Discovery Early Career Research Fellow at the University of Sydney. She is also the current Director for Early Career Researchers with ESA.

What made you choose a career in the sciences? 

I was naturally drawn to science from a young age. My dad was a high school science teacher, and I spent much of my childhood enjoying Australia’s beautiful natural environments. I think it was late in my high school years I realised people could have a career protecting the environment, and then I became pretty determined to do just that.

Who are some of your most-admired women in science? 

I’ve been lucky enough to have worked for and alongside enormously talented, dedicated and inspiring women. I think the women I admire most in science are my colleagues, especially the part-timers, or the early career scientists who are incredibly skilled, exceptional scientists and just really wonderful people.

What would be your advice to other women considering a career in STEM? 

Go for it! If you love STEM subjects then follow your interests. There are so many career options that can take you anywhere you want.

What would you like to see change in the future to help improve the number of women pursuing a career in STEM? 

I’d like to see workplaces embrace and better cater for flexible and part-time roles. Being a part-timer is hard, but there are many things employers can do to better support women to take on and stay in these roles. I couldn’t even count how many fantastic opportunities I have missed because they were on one day only, or required significant travel. Implementing better support structures that facilitate women staying in their role through and after a career break has the potential to really help to retain women in these careers.

Sam manages the Queensland Fire and Biodiversity Consortium, an initiative of Healthy Land and Water.

What made you choose a career in the sciences? 

I have always been interested in science, especially ecology and living sustainably with the natural world. As a child I always wanted to work with animals and plants and as I got older that evolved into biology and then ecology. I have always been fascinated by the natural world, ecological processes, how it is that things co-exist and the potential for harm when we interfere with those processes. Biology was a natural choice for university and I was fortunate enough to be inspired by, and learn from, some brilliant ecologists, which ultimately shaped my career post-university. As I worked more in science I also appreciated more the value of science communication, something I continue to prioritise.

Who are some of your most-admired women in science?

Prof Lesley Hughes: Macquarie University (Professor of Biology and Pro Vice-Chancellor), Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, Director of WWF and member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists. Prof. Hughes’ achievements are too many to list, but what I admire about her (besides her research contributions) is her ability to maintain her research career whilst also working in leadership and advocacy roles. Her role with the Climate Council and other leadership roles provides inspiration to women in science that they can have a voice outside of their research or teaching roles.

Dr Penny Watson: Former Coordinator Queensland (formerly South East Queensland) Fire and Biodiversity Consortium and (“nominally retired”) fire ecologist. Dr Penny Watson has an extensive career in science, fire ecology and education and was the first Coordinator of the Queensland Fire and Biodiversity Consortium.  Penny is one of those people who inspires and energises and has given generously of her time and knowledge. Having returned to study when her children were older, Penny went on to work extensively in fire ecology research and engagement and continues to contribute to the fire science community.

Ruby Payne-Scott (1912 – 1981): I just love the story of Ruby Payne-Scott, she is described as a “pioneer in radio physics and radio astronomy” and worked at CSIRO. I am in no way a physicist, but what I love about this story is her determination to contribute to her profession as a scientist, regardless of the discrimination she faced as a woman.  She paved the way for Australian women in science, inspired employment of women science graduates, advocated strongly for equal rights for women in the workplace and of course made some monumental contributions to radio astronomy.

What would be your advice to other women considering a career in STEM? 

Go for it!  Be strong and determined in what you are interested in and what you want to achieve.  Look for a balance of interest, motivation and natural ability – find something you enjoy doing, that you are self-driven to achieve in, and that you are good at.  Importantly, find a mentor and foster relationships, and be open and learn from those around you along the way. Look at the job opportunities and speak with people about what you are interested in – there are lots of different ways to work in science.  If you are interested in research think about whether you are prepared to undertake post-graduate studies and potentially work overseas for a while.

What would you like to see change in the future to help improve the number of women pursuing a career in STEM?

I think there have been some fantastic advancements in terms of encouraging girls to take up STEM at school, but I’m not sure how that translates in the workplace. I think there are many opportunities to improve the number of women working in STEM, including increased funding for PhD scholarships and post-doctoral positions, increased investment in government science agencies and departments and greater appreciation of the value of working mothers, in particular flexible work arrangements and childcare options. My workplace has been supportive which is reflected in the gender balance at Healthy Land and Water, where more than half of the staff and more than half of the Board are women.

Yung En is a Senior Research Fellow in the School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences at The University of Melbourne. She and her colleagues were awarded the 2020 Ecological Impact Award for their work on ecological modelling and waterway management prioritisation in greater Melbourne.

What made you choose a career in the sciences? 

I’m curious, love discovery and learning, enjoy research and asking how we know what we think we know. Science nurtures and satisfies all this!

Who are some of your most-admired women in science?

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Julia K Steinberger, Zeynep Tufekci, and if I’m permitted to interpret ‘women’ and ‘science’ a little more broadly, I’d also add Audrey Tang (post-gender, no pronoun preference, internet pioneer, programmer/developer, ‘civic hacker’, now Digital Minister of Taiwan).

What would be your advice to other women considering a career in STEM? 

This is a hard one as so much depends on one’s personal background and context! Just two generic things:

  1. You’re equal to the task. If not right now, you can acquire the necessary knowledge and skills — that’s how others have done it and you can too! Doubts or Imposter Syndrome? Check out Inferior by Angela Saini, or Testosterone Rex and Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine
  2. Know yourself. Understand why you’re attracted to STEM and what you think you’ll get from a career in STEM, what would you like to accomplish or contribute to? What are your alternative career options? How do they compare against a STEM-path in terms of your desiderata?

What would you like to see change in the future to help improve the number of women pursuing a career in STEM?

I think improving, equity, diversity and inclusion in STEM would increase the number of women pursuing a career in STEM. (I like this resource by Dr Zuleyka Zevallos: https://othersociologist.com/intersectionality-equity-diversity/). But beyond numbers, the quality of opportunities is also critical. Understanding why STEM hasn’t been terribly equitable, diverse or inclusive means learning the history and contexts that have shaped STEM disciplines and reflecting on them to design new institutional and cultural practices and effective solutions to systematic biases and structural barriers.

Substantially increasing the public visibility and prominence of women in STEM (especially women of colour) is also important. And even here there are systematic hurdles to overcome! (See https://www.chemistryworld.com/news/female-scientists-pages-keep-disappearing-from-wikipedia-whats-going-on/3010664.article; but yay for Dr Jess Wade!:https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24532680-800-jess-wades-one-woman-mission-to-diversify-wikipedias-science-stories/)

Diana is an Associate Professor in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Queensland. She is co-chair of the IUCN Marsupial & Monotreme Species Specialist Group, Vice President of The Australian Mammal Society, a CI in the NESP Threatened Species Recovery Hub, and on the editorial board of Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B and Methods in Ecology and Evolution. Diana was awarded the 2020 Australian Ecology Research Award

What made you choose a career in the sciences?

I have always been very interested in how animals do things. I have had an idea that nature is much more than the picture that humans see, which makes you want to know more about it. I don't exactly know where the specific aspect of mammal ecology comes from, I seem to have had an innate interest in it from a very early age. I did grow up near the bush in a family of scientists, teachers and engineers, and I had a lot of pets as a kid and did quite a bit of walking in the bush. I thought being a scientist was pretty normal as my dad worked for the CSIRO.

Who are some of your most-admired women in science?

There are some fantastic ecologists. The late Dame Georgina Mace, who transformed the global IUCN Red List of Threatened Species from a fairly subjective and inconsistent list to an absolutely scientifically rigorous set of criteria that are now the basis for understanding the risk of extinction in the world's species and its causes. One of the best things any human has ever done for practical conservation. She was also a kind and brilliant mentor for many people. You could say the same for Loeske Kruuk, who is a fantastic ecologist (and friend) who has been based in Australia at ANU for several years with a Laureate Fellowship, but has, unfortunately for us, just gone back to Scotland as a Royal Society Research Professor. Her work shows how important long-term field studies are for understanding population ecology and life-history evolution in changing environments.

What would be your advice to other women considering a career in STEM? 

I had advice as a teenager wanting to study biology to do maths and chemistry because they are important background for science courses generally, and undergraduate biology, rather than just doing biology, and that is still true. I would say don't be too narrow too soon with subjects. Also I would recommend once at uni getting involved in societies and joining in field trips as a volunteer as much as you can, to meet people, have fun, and find out what research is like. This advice is not only specific to women, but the point is to get involved at all stages, and do science and maths courses with a view of learning a broad range of skills and background ideas.

What would you like to see change in the future to help improve the number of women pursuing a career in STEM?

I think young people notice when governments don't support universities, and specifically when they don't support research careers in STEM. It starts with visible support for science and tertiary education from government and the media, so potential students can see that there is a positive future in a STEM career.

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