If you search ‘famous scientists’ on Google, 51 profiles pop up.
There’s your usual suspects: Da Vinci, Darwin, Einstein, Edison, Hawking, Sagan. Just some of the biggest, most impressive nerds who helped shape humanity. No big deal.
Scrolling through the names behind the world’s most fundamental discoveries and inventions, something becomes pretty obvious.
Among 51 brilliant brains - albeit chosen by Google, with an unclear criteria for them being there exactly - there’s only four brilliant women.
You could argue that it’s a pretty meaningless thing; a quirk of Google’s autocomplete function. But it reflects science, technology, engineering and Maths (STEM) today: you have to look pretty hard to find women among the ranks. It’s a total boy’s club.
In Australia, women only make up 16 per cent of 2.3 million STEM-qualified professionals - according to a report from the Office of the Chief Scientist last year. The report also found the gender pay gap in STEM was “significant, longstanding and unacceptable”, and warned, “No clever country under-serves half its people.”
Last year, the Federal Government allocated $8 million in funding for women in STEM under the National Innovation and Science Agenda to help address the problem.
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Among the first round of projects funded in December last year, Science and Technology Australia got the green light for their ‘Superstars of STEM’ program - to support 30 Australian women in STEM to become public role models and encourage the next generation of women in STEM.
Today, 30 brilliant minds were recognised for their work and passion for increasing the visibility of women in science. There’s women working and researching robotics, the science of cider, computers, rare insects, mummies, brains and ground-breaking chemistry, among other fascinating discoveries.
Seriously - if you want to feel grossly inadequate about your own achievements, head here to check them all out.
For one of the women recognised today, computer scientist and educator Dr Nicky Ringland, part of the problem comes from ingrained stereotypes.
“I thought a lot about science when I was younger, but I had this idea that scientists wore white coats and always had a pipette in hand,” Dr Ringland told Hack.
“That didn’t really appeal to me. I wanted to interact with people and solve problems and have interesting discussions. I didn’t see a path to that [through science]. Which is a bit sad but I got there in the end.”
Dr Ringland says it’s often argued that there’s a gender gap in STEM because women just aren’t interested in it.
“If women and girls are just inherently not attracted to STEM, then that’s a problem. We’re not doing a good job at showing them all the fantastic sides of science to actually get them excited, despite the image problem or other barriers they see in the way.”
Dr Ringland runs free workshops for girls and young women called the Girls Programming Network. She says the reaction to her work has seen a positive shift over the years.
“Ten years ago I was cold calling schools, saying ‘hey we’re running these free programs’... I’d get reactions from their teachers saying, ‘Oh no, our girls wouldn’t be interested in things like that.’ It’s like, ‘Thanks for asking them, thanks for giving them the opportunity.’
“But now it’s a much more positive and receptive reaction.”
For another one of the women recognised as a STEM superstar today, Associate Professor at the Brain and Mind institute Muireann Irish, the program is helping shift a significant problem.
There are all these amazing women in science, we just don’t see them.
“I think we’ve all [women in STEM] encountered scenarios where people may not necessarily have thought that we were the scientist attending the event, because we do not fit the mould.
“It’s happened to me, at meetings and events. I quite like it when it happens, because it shows that we need to do more to encourage the visibility and to normalise what a scientist looks like. I like surprising people and telling them what I do to break the stereotype.”
While there seems to be more conversation about gender diversity in STEM than ever before, Associate Professor Irish says exposing some of the industry’s flaws have had a negative impact on young women pursuing STEM.
“It’s quite sad for me to see that these really talented young girls are self-selecting themselves out of science without even giving it a chance because they’re hearing such negative commentary about bias and about challenges and work life balance and obstacles.
I was never exposed to those statements when I was growing up. I think it may be more of a deterrent for girls pursuing science.
“I think the conversations that we need to have in the science discipline is, you can do this and we need your talent and your intellect to have a really innovative and inclusive field.”