When STEM superstar Muireann Irish fell pregnant, her groundbreaking research came to a screeching halt.
An associate professor with expertise in dementia at the University of Sydney, Ms Irish said 'a veil' was lifted on gender disparity in the STEM industries (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) when she took maternity leave.
“The system really isn’t geared up to support women,” she said.
“I was told that my project had to stop, the funding had to stop, no one had ever asked for [data to continue being collected while on leave] before, and it was better not to challenge the system."
“I lost my staff member and didn’t get data while I was away. It was a double hit when you’re out of the game.”
But education experts say that the barriers to women in Australian STEM industries start appearing much earlier on, from when children are about 12-years-old.
While boys and girls start their primary school education wanting to become doctors, engineers, astronauts and scientists, by the end of primary schooling, girls’ interest in STEM has waned.
“Something in there is massively happening to deflect women’s interest in tech, or women’s ability to continue down those paths that they show equal interest in when they’re younger,” according to Dr Nicky Ringland, a computer education specialist at the Australian Computing Academy.
“They’re suddenly becoming aware of what society thinks is appropriate for them to do, and for people to do in general.”
In 2013, Dr Ringland co-founded Grok Learning, a company helping school kids learn code and computer programming.
Since then, she’s been showing the ropes to thousands of Australian children, all the while carrying the torch for a newly amped-up battle against gender disparity in STEM fields.
According to peak workplace rights group Professionals Australia, women only account for 28 percent of jobs in STEM industries across the country.
“I think that the best thing we can do to sustain these girls’ interest past the 12-year-old mark is to promote the varied and important roles that you can do with technology,” Dr Ringland said.
“The people who are working on curing cancer are doing that with code. The people who are tracking human smugglers aren’t out there on boats, they’re analysing data. These are the things that we aren’t telling stories about, and we need to be encouraging more discussion and more awareness.”
While Dr Ringland battles gender disparity from the ground-up, an Australian-first pilot program SAGE (Science in Australia Gender Equity) will target the boardrooms of some of the country’s top STEM institutions.
The program uses an awards system to acknowledge STEM institutions’ commitment to creating effective policies and practices that ensure gender equality.
So far, 44 out of an eligible 82 institutions – including the CSIRO and many top Australian universities – have signed up to the pilot, which will see the first round of ‘Bronze Award’ winners announced by the end of this year.
“The whole process involves a really deep and honest look at the data of an institution, to try and identify where there are issues around work representation and the inclusion of women,” said Renae Ryan, the program’s academic director.
Ms Ryan says that despite the fact that there have been attempts to crack STEM’s gender disparity problem in Australia since the 80s, SAGE is our best bet yet, because institutions have to prove they have changed in order to maintain their awards.
Applications are peer reviewed, scrutinised, and the awards themselves are not easy to get a hold of – there are no ‘Gold’ award institutions under the UK’s equivalent Athena Swan model, and only a few departments and faculties have been able to climb to the top of the ranks.
“It’s not just another one of those box-ticking exercises where you can come up with as many great policies as you want. A lot of universities and a lot of institutions have great policies, but are those policies actually enacted?” Ms Ryan said.
“They are judged not only by their ability to recognize the issues, but to act on them.”
Ms Ryan predicts that in 10 to 15 years, SAGE will have revolutionised STEM industries in Australia.
Workplaces and institutions will become places where diverse thought is “accepted and sought out”, and people have the freedom “just to be themselves”.
Ms Irish was recently selected as one of Science and Technology Australia’s 30 women ‘Superstars of STEM’.
This year, she’ll be travelling to schools across the country as part of the program, encouraging young girls to go against the grain and pursue careers in STEM industries.
“Forget Einstein. The goal is to show the younger generations of women that this is what a scientist looks like,” she said.