The review on women in STEM: a physicist’s perspective

Yesterday the federal science minister Ed Husic ordered a review into programs designed to encourage and support women into science and technologies. I think such a review is timely as we need a shift in the focus from ‘fixing/promoting women’ to reviewing our organizations and systems. I hope the terms of reference of the review are broad.

As a woman working in the discipline of Physics for the past 20 years, I have definitely noticed a change in attitudes towards women over my career. When I was a student and stood for president of the Physics Student Society, I was shouted down by a group of men chanting “beer, beer, beer” (and was unsurprisingly not elected). I was propositioned by a tutor and being sexually harassed at conferences was sadly routine. I had to fight for maternity leave as I was on nearing the end of my contract and it was “unclear” if I was eligible.

Today such issues no doubt still exist, but I feel that the dial has shifted and there is an expectation that such experiences should be a thing of the past.

Universities are very aware of the need to support and promote women. Programs to support women with a mentoring and leadership focus are impactful and do help shift attitudes.

Frankly, I think if we did not have these programs the numbers of women in STEM would have dropped over the last decade. So mindsets are changing, but we are hitting a wall as we are still working within the confines of systems that remain essentially untouched.

More on women in STEM: The persistent gender gap in science

The next wave of change in this area will have to focus on the systems and structures of our sector. This will be hard. The sector will need help from experts. The big issues that are always identified by women, and indeed other chronically under-represented groups in STEM, as barriers to participation of lack of job security, unclear career pathways, and sexual harassment, cannot be addressed by a single program or initiative.

I remain optimistic that we are moving in the right direction and hope that the current review moves the focus to these systems. This will be complex, difficult, and will require long term thinking. Luckily, we in STEM love a big challenge.

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