Science and Technology Australia has come out with a new programme – Superstars of STEM – that aims to smash the stereotypical portrait of people in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
The plan is to identify and work with 30 superstar women currently in STEM to create role models for young women and girls, and thus move towards equal representation in the media of men and women in STEM.
As the new ambassador and a mentor for Superstars of STEM, my role is to encourage broad participation, which we hope will elevate the visibility of women STEM professionals in public life.
Encouraging more women in STEM
There are already some programmes that support female scientists and technologists in a bid to break down systemic obstacles. One of such is the Science in Australia Gender Equity programme. Others aim to inspire women to study STEM subjects, such as Code like a Girl, or SheFlies and Robogals, which help young women build their techno-confidence.
Adding to this picture, Superstars of STEM aims to address public perception and is founded on the principle that visibility matters in achieving equality.
Rather than simply attempting to shoehorn women into the public eye, this new programme will work with 30 women in STEM to equip them with the skills, confidence and opportunities to become role models. This approach will build on the work being done to address systemic issues facing female scientists and technologists.
A recent European study by Microsoft found most girls became interested in STEM at around the age of 11, but their interest began to wane at 15. This is an important age, as girls are starting to make decisions that will set the trajectory of their academic life.
The lack of role models in STEM was identified as the key factor that influenced the girls in the study, as well as a lack of practical experience with STEM subjects at school. On Twitter, 92 percent of the most followed scientists are male. When women scientists are mentioned in the media, they often tend to be described by their appearance rather than their achievements.
In Australia, more than half of all undergraduates and half of PhD students are female. Almost 60 percent of junior science lecturers are women. But women comprise just 16 percent of top-level science and technology researchers, professors and professionals.
I thought that was enough for me, until as a 16-year-old I met Britain’s first astronaut, Helen Sharman, at Space School UK. At that moment, I suddenly realised every one of my role models in the fields of astronomy and space science had been male.
Meeting this real-life STEM superstar had a transformational influence on me. It even spurred me on to apply for the European Astronaut Program in 2009.
As someone who is passionate about astrophysics and science education, I have inadvertently become a role model myself.
But the continued lack of diverse role models in STEM makes me wonder how many missed opportunities and how much unrealised potential continues to be lost. Have our young, modern-day Marie Curies, Ruby Payne-Scotts, Ada Lovelaces and Isobel Bennetts passed up on science as a subject in favour of more conventional choices?
The new superstars
In its first year, Superstars of STEM is placing 30 women in the public eye, by equipping them with advanced communication skills. This will include media training, meetings with decision-makers, and opportunities to showcase their work.
Participants will also be supported to speak with girls directly at local high schools and public events, along with establishing a public profile online.
There are too few transformational and brilliant women in the public eye. Every success in science and technology in Australia is built on the work and contributions of people across the genders. For the sake of our girls, we need to celebrate these outstanding scientists and their work.
The measure of the success of Superstars of STEM will be whether young Australian women can turn on the television, read a newspaper or engage with social media and see women experts presenting STEM as an exciting and viable career. I can’t wait to witness the opportunities this change will bring.
This article was co-authored with Kylie Walker, chief executive officer of Science and Technology Australia.