As Sunday the 8th of March was International Women’s Day, I thought it only fitting to write about women – particularly women in STEM. Earlier during the week, I had dinner with a male friend who has just started his degree in civil engineering. Something he said when asked about his first week of classes was “I was surprised by how many women there were”.
Now my friend by no means meant that he thought women shouldn’t be taking this degree, or are unable to, he simply based his remark on his experience during his Bachelor of Science – there was generally an unbalanced ratio of men and women. This got me thinking ,why, in this day and age is it still a surprise to see women undertaking an education in STEM, and why aren’t there more women in STEM?
In my discussions with women in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, we all agreed that girls and women often face stigma and misconceptions about STEM. Brechtje, an engineering teacher to primary and middle school children, is often assumed to be the teacher’s aide rather than the leader of her class. She says “authority in that subject matter traditionally lies with men and perceptions of such realities will take generations to change.” This suggests that there is an inherent belief by some that a woman’s role is not in science, technology, engineering or maths. Her classes have been predominantly made up of a large ratio of boys to girls, something which mirrors my experience of high school physics – I was the only girl with a class of 20 boys even though many girls in my grade could have excelled in the subject.
Brechtje’s work is part of Obama’s initiative to increase education in STEM in the USA, which you can read more about here. I think that beyond the idea that women don’t belong in STEM, a common misconception is that science and maths are boring or hard. It’s up to educators and parents to prove this wrong and to provide support to those who struggle. Science to me gives us beauty and creativity in ways that may not be so obvious, but once we take a closer look we see the wonders it gives us.
Angela, a PhD student of Microbiology, commented that “it starts at birth, laying down the foundations for confidence in maths” when I asked what would encourage girls and women to engage in STEM. This idea is one that echoes between the women who responded to my questions, girls should be encouraged into STEM from a young age. Stephanie, a second year student, agrees, saying “women need to realise they can study whatever interests them”, a concept which she lives by as she studies pharmacology – a field that continues to fascinate her.
So how do we get more girls and women involved in STEM? Professor Veena Sahajwalla from UNSW has set up Science 50:50 in an effort to close the gender gap in the fields of science and technology. Her program includes scholarships, school visits, internships and many more opportunities for girls and women to be inspired into a career in STEM. As someone who is studying to be a teacher, I hope that in my teaching career I am able to motivate girls to be interested in science – hopefully my enthusiasm for STEM will reflect onto my students.
Want to read more? Head to the links below:
There are also forums and blogs devoted to women in STEM:
Image source: www.millionwomenmentors.org