Australia today is more dependent on technology and science than ever before, however, the number of women engaged in these fields of study has been declining for several years. Five percent of year twelve girls now study advanced maths, and less than two percent do the STEM trio – advanced maths, chemistry and physics.
Science continues to be perceived as a ‘male’ domain, with even senior female scientists noting a gender bias. Well-known Australian scientist, Ian Chubb, warns of a widening gender discrepancy. “We are not making the best use of our talent. This is particularly true in science, engineering and related areas,” Chubb said.
Waning interest in science and technology
Senior science faculty positions in Australia are dominated by males, with women holding 10 percent of the positions. The situation is similar in Europe and the United States, and although gender imbalance is obvious, research shows that the attraction of science and technology is also waning for males. Between 1992 and 2009, the proportion of year twelve students studying physics, biology and chemistry fell by up to 32 percent.
According to Veena Sahajwalla, UNSW Professor and Laureate Fellow, “Australia needs to engage more young people with the mysteries, fascination, drama and possibilities of careers in science and technology.”
Overcoming stereotypes and inspiring women
Professor Sahajwalla believes many young women are uninspired to take up a career path that will see them stuck in a lab full of test tubes and microscopes. She wants educators to help young women overcome this stereotype by presenting exciting possibilities that can enable science and technology graduates to establish career paths indoors, outdoors, or anywhere on Earth, and even outer space.
Many of our fastest growing industries require STEM skills, and although women hold the minority of science and technology leadership positions, their numbers are still large enough to provide mentors and support for the next generation of female scientists.
Being at the forefront of positive change
Sahajwalla isn’t intimidated by male dominance in science and technology. Ever since beginning her university studies as the sole woman in her engineering class, she has been dedicated to making a positive change for women.
“We’ve already made some big strides. The challenge now is to harness the extra energy we need to keep walking in the right direction,” Sahajwalla said.