The Powerful Force that is Women in STEMM
by Dr Catriona Nguyen-Robertson MRSV
‘When women help women, we’re a powerful force.’ So says a mug that my mentor, colleague, and friend Jen Martin gave me. It is fact #28 of “28 cold hard facts impacting women in leadership” compiled by Homeward Bound1. Most of the facts speak to the gender gap and under-representation of women in STEMM, but this one is more positive. In all that we face, we are much stronger together.
Throughout history, women have faced numerous barriers in the male-dominated field of science. Women scientists often have to navigate a complex and challenging career path if they are overlooked for promotions and opportunities, have to juggle caring duties or pastoral care at work, take maternity leave in a system that continuously requires results, or change fields because they feel unsupported. It is encouraging to see that more women are pursuing STEM, however, as a scientist and mentor, I only want to encourage girls down that path if the whole system improves.
The proportion of women studying at universities has risen, but gender disparity in STEMM is far from being achieved. Women comprise greater than half the student population2 at Australian universities and the gender ratio of full-time academics is close to equal3. Albeit, while the overall numbers of men and women are not very different – it is the seniority of the positions they hold that differs starkly.
As a young student in the university system, I did not see anything outside of what looked like a very narrow tunnel leading straight towards an academic career. For the most part, that is the only thing that early career researchers are exposed to given that they are surrounded by other academics. For women and non-binary people, that tunnel can look daunting: men dominate the upper levels of Australian (and global) academia, with 70% more men than women at associate professor and professor levels4. There are not too many options that young women scientists can see besides academia and within academia, there are fewer senior women to look up to.
I certainly feel empowered knowing that other women have my back. For many people, including myself, success depends not only on our own hard work and dedication but also on having a support system that includes mentors and role models. In a male dominated industry – and having been in male-dominated research groups for the entirety of my academic career – I would not be where I am today without these role models and mentors. But how many women are around to guide younger generations?
Inspiring Women in STEMM
There are many notable women scientists in history whose achievements and contributions have had a significant impact on their fields, and they inspire young women (like myself) to pursue careers in science. They show that intelligence, perseverance, and passion can lead to groundbreaking discoveries and significant contributions to science. They also challenge stereotypes: not all scientists are like those I grew up seeing like Dr Emmet Brown from Back to the Future, Dexter from Dexter’s Laboratory, or the trope of the mad scientist. Science is for everyone, regardless of gender or background.
Discussing trailblazing women in science usually draws mention of Marie Curie. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, but even after being awarded her second Nobel Prize, she was still refused membership of the French Académie de Sciences. In addition, a notorious example of an unrecognised female scientist is Rosalind Franklin, who was only recognised posthumously for identifying the double helical structure of DNA – a fundamental biological discovery for which her male colleagues, James Watson and Francis Crick, were awarded the Nobel Prize.
Closer to home, one of my favourite local heroes is the late microbiologist Lucey Alford. As the lowest spot in Melbourne, the Spotswood Pumping Station was the heart of Melbourne’s sewerage system. In all 68 years of its operation, only three women worked there: Lucey and, later, her two assistants. In 1941, after investigations revealed that bacteria were causing decay of the concrete sewerage pipes, the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works advertised for a bacteriologist. Because of the war, no men were available for the job, and Lucey was therefore offered the position as the only one qualified and available. She was more than qualified, with a Bachelor of Science (Honours), several years in the pathology department at the Royal Perth Hospital and a stint with the CSIRO under her belt, but she was only employed on a temporary basis. She certainly proved herself though: she investigated bacteria passing through the sewage and could even narrow down the causative bacteria of a typhoid outbreak and the dairy farm from where it came.
As the first women employed at the Pumping Station, a toilet had to be built just for Lucey – so they built it right opposite her laboratory. She became a strong role model to a younger generation of female employees who came on board, having learnt early on of the importance of standing up for herself. On one occasion when male colleagues complained about the way female staff were pouring cups of tea, she encouraged them to refuse to fill the teapot the next day and the men soon learnt to be appreciative or make their own tea. I admire her because she stood her ground, proved that she was to be taken seriously, and ended up staying with the Board of Works for twenty years.
Have things improved for women in science since then? There is certainly a growing list of incredible women in STEMM role models. Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier’s ground-breaking work in gene editing earned them the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Their win – only three years ago – marked the first time a science-related Nobel Prize was shared by women without a man. While there are more women in STEMM than before, there is still a great exodus of accomplished women from academic research. As more penetrate the upper echelons of academia, perhaps things will change.
Having role models inspires and motivates women in science to pursue their ambitions. Seeing other successful women in science is incredibly empowering, as it demonstrates that it is possible to achieve success in a male-dominated field.
Women are Stronger Together
The ‘Women in STEMM’ community is the most supportive, inspiring and encouraging group of women I have ever been privileged enough to be a part of. Women in STEMM may face discrimination, unconscious bias, and other barriers, but these are easier to face together.
Peer support networks of women scientists provide a sense of community and belonging, as well as a forum for discussing shared experiences and challenges. As a university student, I stumbled across Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) at the University of Melbourne. The first time I attended an event, I felt so at home in a room full of other female and non-binary STEM students. We shared our experiences and discussed the future. Through WISE, I met people in varied and interesting jobs, and my tunnel vision grew wider: academia wasn’t the only option as there were jobs available in “industry” too.
The Women in STEMM community is full of people cheering each other on. I would have likely gone down a very different path had it not been for all the women who have been my mentors and cheerleaders along the way; people who have celebrated my wins with me, and provided guidance, advice and encouragement to not give up.
For me, Associate Professor Jen Martin and Dr Linden Ashcroft are two such people. As I moved further into the science communication space, Jen and Linden became my go-to people for advice and feedback on my work, and it is a privilege to be working in a team with them.
My list of mentors has grown over the years as I dipped my toes in more waters: from immunologists to leaders in science communication. I have been formally paired with mentors, such as with the Industry Mentoring Network in STEM (IMNIS), and I have sought mentorship from other people I respected. Furthermore, I work with a bright, incredible bunch of women at Scienceworks. In fact, many of the senior positions are occupied by women who have shown me that it is possible to do something that you love, be great at it, and maintain a work-life balance. Perhaps I will get there too one day.
When women support and uplift each other, they can overcome the isolation and discouragement that can hinder their success and pave the way for future generations of women in science. As I took the incredibly scary step of moving away from the research trajectory and swapping my lab coat for science communication, it was made much easier knowing how many people were cheering me on. We truly empower one another. When women help women, we certainly are a powerful force.
Dr Catriona Nguyen-Robertson is a Senior Tutor in Science Communication at The University of Melbourne, a Learning Facilitator at Museums Victoria, and RSV’s Science Engagement Officer.
- Homeward Bound. ‘28 Cold Hard Facts. The real barriers weighing down womxn in STEMM – all women.’ https://genderfacts.homewardboundprojects.com.au/?_ga=2.102384259.340108018.1676705180-1586210453.1676433786
- Australian Government Department of Education. ‘2021 Student summary tables’. 9 February 2023. https://www.education.gov.au/higher-education-statistics/resources/2021-student-summary-tables
- Australian Government Department of Education. ‘2021 Staff full-time equivalence’. 9 February 2022. https://www.education.gov.au/higher-education-statistics/resources/2021-staff-fulltime-equivalence
- Australian Government Department of Education. ‘2021 Staff numbers’. 9 February 2022. https://www.education.gov.au/higher-education-statistics/resources/2021-staff-numbers