Final year UTS Journalism and International Studies student. My interests include the environment, subculture and social justice
Anke Nguyen grew up attending an all-girls high school. In her senior year, she decided she wanted to become a biomedical engineer.
Her teachers encouraged her love for science and technology but warned that engineering was a typically male course.
When she walked into one of her first engineering lectures five years ago, she was prepared for how many male students were there. Then her lecturer pointed out that there were only two female students in the entire lecture room and they were sitting next to each other.
Hearing that said aloud made her feel isolated and awkward but, after the initial shock, she didn’t let it bother her anymore.
“The guys didn’t treat me differently, they treated me the same as everybody else," she said.
"I felt like a student doing engineering, and not just a female student doing engineering with a bunch of guys.”
Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) related subjects are typically preferred by male students - but that’s not to say that female students aren’t interested.
“Everyone has exposure and interest in technology so, in a way, that sort of exposure and interest will allow us to consider futures in STEM."
A 2018 study from the University of Newcastle revealed that interest in STEM subjects for both male and female students has remained high for the last 16 years.
The study showed female student enrolments had increased for Biology and remained steady for Chemistry. However, enrolments for the 2017 Higher School Certificate (HSC) Physics course, totalled 2195 - a slight decrease.
University of Sydney researcher Kathryn Ross, said that one reason women drop out of STEM is because they suffer from “imposter syndrome”, where they doubt any success they achieve.
“Women will generally attribute [their success] to luck, or maybe they were pushing really hard or worked really hard, rather than their natural talent,” she said.
Anke Nguyen believes another reason could be the lack of female representation in the field.
“In high school, your understanding of [STEM] is what people tell you and it’s really limited," she said.
"You feel like it’s an out of reach sort of thing. If, as a female, you get to see more female physicists being represented, then that would really help."
The NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) recently announced changes to the Science subjects for the 2019 HSC curriculum in an effort to boost student enrolment. Included are changes to the Physics syllabus to cover more complex topics, like thermodynamics - to better prepare students for university.
To accommodate the changes, there has been a reduction in the number of theories and contributions of physicists - including female physicists.
Ms Nguyen believes this will only harm young girls’ aspirations to enter STEM fields.
“If you don’t even get a chance to consider it or get a chance to be exposed or educated [in it], even just a little bit, you wouldn’t even consider it," she said.
"And that is something that did happen... until I was able to basically realise what engineering was... I didn’t even consider doing [Physics]."
NESA Media Director Michael Charlton, said the changes were made based on the feedback of academics and Physics teachers.
“Concepts included in the new syllabus are the things students need to know to get through university-level Physics,” he said.
“When the laws, theories and experiments of modern physics were being developed - the essential core ones - men were the vast, vast majority of Physicists.”
Kathryn Ross disagrees. She believes the changes are a symptom of a larger problem.
“It’s not necessarily NESA trying to actively remove the women, but probably more [the] result of an implicit bias... they’re not aware they need to actively include women," she said.
“I’ve actually read through every Science syllabus in the HSC… and there are three mentions of women. One of them is Marie Curie, who they said was included in Investigating Science... but the other two mentions are actually Edna Krabappel and Maggie Simpson. (*From the TV show, The Simpsons)
“So, there are more cartoon characters than there are female scientists in all of the science courses."
Mr Charlton said students wanting to study more about women can do so in the 15-hour “depth studies” as part of the course requirements.
Isabella Pham, a biomedical engineering student at UTS, said the changes won’t affect anything - because learning the names of female scientists in Years 11 and 12 is too late.
"My opinion is that [they] should’ve told us that in Year 7 when we were first kind of seriously [started] learning about science,” she said.
The author of the University of Newcastle study, Felicia Jaremus, said the new syllabus goes against the 2016-2026 National STEM School Education Strategy.
“One of the key jurisdictional priorities [in the strategy] was to obtain an increased evidence base for what works to improve girls’ participation in STEM," she said.
"And we know that having role models in STEM is great for both girls and boys, yet we’ve gone and done the opposite to that.”
Role models for young people, especially in STEM, will foster further interest in the field. Despite not having any female role models growing up, Ms Nguyen said more female representation would break the stereotype.
“If we have more females in STEM, it shows... that it is achievable; this is a fact, this is the result, it is achievable for women to be in STEM.”