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STEM is More Than Men

Have you ever heard of Rosalind Franklin? What about Ada Lovelace? Many people would have difficulty telling you who these two females were or what they did. If you asked a group of grade schoolers to name a few scientists, they would probably say Albert Einstein or Charles Darwin – but would they be able to name any females?

Franklin dedicated her life to trying to discover the structure of DNA. She received very little credit for her contributions during her lifetime – and much of the credit was awarded to two male scientists, James Watson and Francis Crick. Now, posthumously, her contributions are recognized in the science world.

Lovelace was the mathematician credited with writing the instructions for an invention that most people use daily – the computer.

The contributions of women in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields are not lacking, but their recognition is.

In the final forum at the World Science Festival, a panel of prominent scientists discussed the reasoning behind the gender gap in STEM fields. They agreed on the need to break down personal and institutional barriers that prevent young women from pursuing their passions in these fields.

“We know from studies that by the age of nine or ten, girls are starting to think, ‘maths is not for me, I’m not very good at maths’,” said Pro Vice-Chancellor at the University of New South Wales Emma Johnson. “That doesn’t reflect their ability or their performance, because often they’re doing better than the boys in the same class. The underlying ability is there, it’s just about the … approval and confidence.”

Part of this confidence can come from young girls seeing more female scientists being acknowledged and celebrated. CEO and Director of the Queensland Museum Network, Professor Suzanne Miller, noted the importance of young girls having women in the STEM fields to be able to look up to and consider role models. Miller pointed out the difficulty of girls being able to envision their future in the STEM fields if they only see men in those positions.

Two other professors discussed how they are taking matters into their own hands by switching from research to leadership roles. They feel leadership roles are the best way for them to change the academic environment for women.

Professor Tanya Monro said she felt like there was only so much she could do in a research role. “You can create a bubble within which other people can thrive, but there are broaderproblems in the culture and you’re not able to address that,” stated Monro.

Similarly, Professor Kerrie Wilson agreed that she felt she had to make a change: “Being exposed to dialogue around women in science and gender equity, I got a sense that I had to be out there changing the system, changing the world, [and] I had a sense I would be there by myself.”

Building the confidence of young girls to pursue careers in STEM fields includes reinforcing the idea that they belong in these roles. Young girls should be told that STEM fields are not designated for men alone; the skills and intelligence necessary to succeed in these areas are not assigned by gender.   

Featured Image by NTNU, Faculty of Natural Sciences on Flickr
Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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