“In order to achieve full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls, and further achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, the United Nations… [declared] 11 February as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science”.
While some progress has been made in recent decades, women remain under-represented in all areas of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). In the life sciences (including biology, ecology, conservation/environmental science), women make up more than half of Bachelor and PhD graduates, but less than 20% of senior research roles are filled by women. Studies show that women are published less, paid less, hired less, and promoted less. There are many contributing factors, and it’s not just as simple as women taking career breaks to raise a family.
This is an issue which is often dismissed, with the belief that women are just “different”. But are girls and women naturally less gifted in science, or do we, as a society, simply encourage boy and men to explore this area more? There is debate around nature versus nurture, but it is becoming more and more obvious that the differences in the ways we (often unconsciously) interact and communicate with children have life-long impacts.
Boys and girls are often treated quite differently in our society, beginning right from birth (or even before birth, if parents choose to find out the sex of their unborn child). This recent video from the BBC shows an experiment where toddlers were offered different toys and played with differently, based on their perceived gender. Carers were shocked when they were told the children they played with were of the opposite gender to what they had thought, and realised that despite believing themselves to be open-minded they had very clear unconscious biases in their treatment of boys and girls.
One barrier to success and career development is lack of respect from colleagues, which, like the differential treatment of boys and girls, can manifest in unconscious ways. A recent study found that female doctors almost always introduce their colleagues of any gender using the title Dr, while male doctors introduce female doctors simply by name more than 50% of the time – check out this news article and interview relating to the study.
When discussing the disadvantages facing women in science with a colleague recently, she relayed to me some of her lived experience in this area. Off the top of her head, she could think of several examples in her own career where she was given less respect (such as when a male workmate was consistently and repeatedly given more leadership tasks) and less resources to succeed and up-skill (such as when a male workmate was allowed to take a particular course, while she was denied the opportunity) – despite being equally qualified as the men in these examples.
Increasing female participation in science is not about taking anything away from men. It is simply about recognising and seeking to rectify the systemic disadvantages which women face in this area. Speaking on this topic, Emmi van Harten, bat researcher and PhD candidate, said “Scientists come in all shapes, genders, colours, sizes, sexual identities, from all sorts of cultures and backgrounds, and much more. More diversity equals more overall knowledge and experience, and better science!” The topic has been on Emmi’s mind a lot lately after a recent incident where a child assumed her older male assistant was the lead scientist of the pair, and exclaimed “but you’re too pretty to be a scientist!”
Hopefully these brief examples illustrate that this is a complex, whole of society problem – and not simply a “women’s issue”. I have deliberately kept this introduction to this vast topic very short, but I recommend you head over to this fact-filled blog post for a more in depth discussion – the bit about stereotype threat is particularly interesting. This quote from the article summarises the complexity surrounding women in STEM, with links to relevant studies:
“It is social conditioning, unconscious biases and institutional practices that create an environment where girls feel unwelcome and insecure in STEM fields… First, children lack female scientist role models from primary school. Second, young undergraduates learn that science privileges a masculine culture, which makes it hard to imagine their career path. Third, diversity barriers are witnessed first-hand by early career researchers. Both male and female faculty are less willing to hire women applicants with the same credentials as men.”
I hope this post has provided food for thought, and I’d like to encourage you to reflect on how your own unconscious biases may impact the children – boys and girls – in your life. Let’s encourage all children to pursue their true interests and passions; in this way we will have more people in fulfilling employment and the best minds for the job on task.
Here at NGT, we seem to be bucking the trend (although there are higher levels of female participation in conservation science in general, compared to other STEM areas), and we have quite a high number of female staff. Without further ado, below is a quick summary of each of us in no particular order, to illustrate and celebrate our diversity.
Sam studied environmental science before moving to the South East in 2012. She now lives adjacent to a large conservation park which she likes to exploring alone and with her children to whom she has also passed on her love of nature. Sam has worked on various restoration and monitoring projects with NGT, particularly relating to the management of Eaglehawk Waterhole.
Originally from the Western District of Victoria, Lauren V did her undergraduate degree in Tasmania, before heading to Western Australia to complete a PhD. She returned to Victoria and began work with NGT in 2014. Lauren’s passion is fish ecology and she loves that part of her job is planning and executing surveys in some beautiful parts of our region. She is equally excited about involving fishers in research, and has initiated two citizen science projects relating to mulloway.
As a child in Switzerland, Nicole wanted to be a platypus researcher, and after a couple of other successful career paths, decided to undertake further study in science in Australia. Nicole joined the NGT team just under a year ago, and in that time she has overseen orange bellied-parrot monitoring in south-west Victoria, and been involved in eagle monitoring, revegetation plantings, and vegetation mapping, just to name a few areas of work. She is fascinated by nature’s diversity, and similarly loves the diversity of work she experiences with NGT.
Not having an environmental background, Toni is nevertheless an important part of the NGT team, taking care of a lot of behind the scenes tasks to keep things running smoothly as our part-time admin officer. Toni enjoys volunteering in the field and camping with her two boys and husband. She is inspired by NGT’s long-term vision for our region, and is confident that she (and we) are contributing to leaving our area in a better state for the next generation.
Tessa retrained in ecology after a successful career in graphic design. She recently graduated with an honours degree and has a particular interest in wetland restoration. As a child growing up in Victor Harbor, Tessa liked playing outside in nature. She really enjoys NGT’s approach of on-ground action combined with working with community.
Sylvia has worked in natural resource management and conservation for 15 years, and has extensive experience working the community, schools, government, and scientific and media groups. Based in Goolwa, Sylvia initiated The Great Goolwa Cockle Challenge, a citizen science project aiming to learn more about cockles and their movements. Sylvia enjoys the range of roles she does including research, education, fieldwork, and committees, and seeing this work turn into positive outcomes for aquatic species. She also loves the enthusiasm and excitement that school and community groups display when she teaches them about aquatic ecology using an interactive and hands on approach.
Sheryl has always enjoyed the outdoors and fell in love with our native orchid species about fifteen years ago. Since then she has been involved in countless orchid surveys in our region, has studied Conservation and Land Management, and joined the NGT team as a casual field officer. Sheryl helps restore habitat by undertaking weed control, and has also been involved in a variety of other projects including small mammal and reptile trapping.
And, me – Rose! I have always been environmentally minded and as a young teenager I liked escaping to the beach at Port MacDonnell where I grew up, picking up rubbish along the way. I studied environmental policy and management at uni, where one day I had a lightbulb moment that conservation is all about people. From then on I became more and more interested in environmental education, and currently really enjoy working with three schools as part of the biodiversity schools program which NGT delivers for ForestrySA. I have also had enviro ed roles in the US, and more recently, in Mexico, where I loved helping young people get to know and love bats.
I would also like to give special mentions to two staff who are currently on maternity leave.
When she was younger Lauren K loved exploring the Gippsland bush, and she decided she wanted to be a park ranger. To this end she studied science in Melbourne, and eventually relocated to south-western Victoria where she has enjoyed a long and diverse career collaborating with community, government, and other stakeholders in threatened species recovery. A favourite part of her job is empowering communities in looking after their local environment.
Jess grew up in the South East and, like many of us, has had a life-long passion for the environment. As a child her bedroom walls were filled with nature posters and she went on to complete environmental science and marine biology degrees. Jess has worked for government departments, has been the coordinator of the Port MacDonnell Reef Watch, and managed Middle Island penguin monitoring for two seasons.