International Day for Women and Girls in Science – What does it mean?

Today is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Why do we need to have a day to recognise girls in their study of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects and women that work in STEM? The reason is simple – there are not enough of them studying STEM or information and communication and technology (ICT) units in schools and universities. 

The Department of Industry, Innovation and Science commissioned a study in 2019 to survey young Australians on their attitudes towards and perception of STEM. The survey was conducted with more than 2000 students aged 12 and 25 years and it found that overall, female students were less interested and less confident in STEM subjects compared to males. In addition, when they were asked about the type of career they would like to have in the future, only 20% of females aspired to a STEM-related career. 

Globally, only about 30% of all female students select STEM-related fields in higher education. The low enrolment is particularly noticeable in ICT (3%), natural science, mathematics and statistics (5%) and in engineering, manufacturing and construction (8%). 

This poor representation of women in education is reflected in the workforce with low numbers in industry and academia. As well, the pay gap for men and women in science, engineering and IT roles provides little incentive for the younger generation with women earning 20% less than men in ICT roles.

What can explain this?

In reflecting on this question, I thought about my personal experience and the experience of other women before me. I was different in that I did STEM units throughout my high school and into university and continue to work and research in data science. 

Why did I choose that path? It can only be put down to my science teacher, Mr Matusak from St Joseph middle school in Ottawa Canada, in year 9 and 10. I come from a very traditional Middle Eastern family whose belief, at that time, was that women were to stop schooling at age 16 and go to secretarial college and prepare for marriage. Mr Matusak recognised my passion for learning and my most logical mind and he began to challenge me by giving me work to do beyond my classroom peers. I lapped it up and could not get enough so that, unknowingly, by the end of year 10 I had completed the syllabus and assessments for year 11 and 12 Chemistry, Physics and Biology subjects. Upon finishing year 10, the only option was to accelerate me to year 13 (a pre-university year that we had in Ontario). 

After completing my undergraduate and masters’ degree in Economics and Finance, I travelled back to my school to see him and to shake his hand as an adult. He was most surprised when I told him what I had done and how much of my success was due to his belief in my ability and his approach to teaching. 

The passion of learning science that Mr Matusak gave me when I was 14 has stayed with me throughout my formal learning journey and inspired me into my university teaching career. I have been most fortunate in my life journey in that I have met other men and women who continue to inspire and support my inquisitiveness on all things STEM. It also means that I have an obligation –as the old movie/book to “pay it forward”. 

In teaching finance to first year students, I have come across the negative view of mathematics with looks of horror and severe discomfort when I write a formula on the board. I’m then told by my students, females and males, that “they are not good at math”. This statement is one that is commonly said but misrepresents their ability. In the first three weeks, I spend time pulling apart the attitudes and disengaged thinking for all things math by story-telling, using visuals, writing on the board, hand gestures, telling jokes and games – I’ve been known to take chocolates in as prizes. I’m constantly told you are so passionate about math – how could you be. My answer is that we all are and must be passionate about science and math as it is in everything we do.

I challenge all who read this blog to inspire and instil the passion and drive into STEM for our girls and women as much as in men. To throw out the preconception that still lingers today that science is just for boys. It is our duty to do this and to bring women into the area of study, into the STEM and ICT workforce and to provide them with equal pay. 

Happy International Day for Women and Girls in Science.

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