Why it’s so important for more women to go into science / STEM
13 January 2023 | Rachel Smith
13 January 2023 | Rachel Smith
Since the pandemic began, women have been on the frontlines, particularly in our hospitals (a huge 87 percent of nurses are female) or in the lab. Many women scientists, including a female-led team at the University of Oxford, were instrumental in the search for a Covid-19 vaccine.
These female trailblazers are carving out a safer world for all of us – but as February 11 and the International Day of Women and Girls in Science rolls round, it’s hard to ignore there’s still a huge gender imbalance in the worlds of science and tech.
“There’s been progress, but it should be 50-50 – after all, if the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that women make great scientists and have a lot to contribute,” says Dr Magdalena Wajrak, senior lecturer in chemistry at Edith Cowan University in Perth. “And yet in the world of science, we’re only utilising 50 percent of the population.”
When Dr Wajrak did her PhD many years ago in quantum chemistry, she was the only woman in her course and was treated differently. “Lecturers were so used to men in science and physics and maths and engineering – they didn’t know what to do with the odd female student and I had to work doubly hard to prove myself. I was also left very largely to my own devices. I’m treated very equally now, and there are lots of programs and initiatives in place to recognise women in science and get them promoted, but there’s still a long way to go.”
One of the most important reasons is that it’ll bring more voices and perspectives to the table, which is sorely needed right now, as the world faces health crises, climate change and ongoing environmental and social challenges.
“Bringing that diversity and that gender balance is so important – simply because you have different approaches to problems,” adds Dr Wajrak.
“I’ve collaborated with lots of male engineers and medical specialists and it’s fascinating to see them come up with solutions to things that I would never have thought of. And they say the same when I give them my perspective and ideas. That mix is so important.”
Number one is the variety of job opportunities – there are just so many pathways for your career to go and so many different organisations you could potentially work in.
“As a chemist I’ve worked in analytical mining laboratories, I’ve worked in medical labs in hospitals, and of course, in academia,” says Dr Wajrak. “I also do a lot of outreach and science communication, which means I get to travel, play with chemicals and show young people what science is all about. I love it.”
And, she adds, feeling like you’re making a real difference in the world is its own reward.
“The Covid-19 vaccines are an obvious one here – how great that it was women scientists who got to play such an important role in bringing that to the world,” says Dr Wajrak.
Your options are endless, especially post-pandemic – whether you opt to work in a pharmaceutical company as a chemist or STEM graduate, or head to the CSIRO as a researcher with a science degree. Mining companies are also crying out for good scientists, as are chemical labs, says Dr Wajrak.
“There are plenty of jobs; I have students who haven’t finished their degree and they’re being head-hunted to go and work in chemical laboratories. This is such a good time to be a chemist. And if you’re interested in climate change – there’s so much research on solar innovations. There’s also so much research on medical innovations. Universities have all the instruments and research projects ready to go, but they’re just lacking the students to jump in and get to work.”
Another fairly new area is science communications (think TV’s Dr Karl). It requires a science degree (and potentially, good writing skills). “Doing this job, you might produce content for publications like The Conversation, translating scientific discoveries or research into user-friendly, everyday language.”
And there’s also outreach work, which Dr Wajrak is passionate about. “That might involve travelling to remote communities and delivering science activities to students, to plant those seeds and hopefully inspire them to take up a career in science.”
If you want to work in a lab or be a science teacher, a degree is required. Some universities offer bridging courses or university preparation courses for mature age students to ready you for the academic environment and help you determine if science / STEM is right for you.
“You’ll also need certain skills to succeed in science, which include creativity,” says Dr Wajrak. “You have to be a good problem-solver. You need really top-notch computer skills and tech skills and be open to new technologies, because you’ll be testing and trying out lots of tools and instruments in your work. And you’ve got to have curiosity and a passion for science. Some science careers do pay well, but for most – you’re not doing it for the money!”
We’re in an age of innovation and cutting-edge technology, and the pandemic is propelling that innovation, says Dr Wajrak.
“Many in the science / STEM world are almost working in real time, on solutions and problems,” she explains. “In my own teaching, we’re starting to look at using augmented reality, mixed reality, which will play a big part in how we communicate and innovate in science, to test how drugs might work with our bodies.”
Her advice for women and girls considering a career in science is to believe in yourself, follow your passion and look for people who can support you along the way.
“Find good mentors, surround yourself with people who support you, build you up and give you good career advice,” she says. “And take a chance – we really need more women in science and STEM, and there’s never been a better time to consider it as a career.”
This information is general in nature and has been prepared without taking your objectives, needs and overall financial situation into account. For this reason, you should consider the appropriateness for the information to your own circumstances and, if necessary, seek appropriate professional advice.