Curious Minds: Tackling the gender bias in science

Teenagers get a bit of a bad rap a lot of the time. People say they’re moody, lazy, selfish, and they know nothing about the real world.

Well, last week I spent some time getting to know 60 teenage girls from across Australia, and I can tell you, they were anything but any of those things.

I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in a program called Curious Minds.

It’s a program that takes girls with an interest in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) and pairs them with a coach – someone like me, who is a woman working in a STEM field. We work together for six months, to give these teens some insight into working as a scientist, and advice on how they can get there themselves.

Why is this sort of program, which encourages girls to consider careers in STEM, so important?

Historically, STEM jobs have largely been the domain of men. Most people, when asked about famous scientists, can rattle off a list of men – Einstein, Newton, Darwin, Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson … the list goes on.

The results of a survey conducted a couple of years ago showed that a quarter of people were unable to name even a single female scientist (try it – can you?). And if you ask kids to draw a picture of a scientist, two thirds of them will draw a man, rather than a woman.

And when we look at the workforce, the figures aren’t encouraging.

Only 16 per cent of university/VET science graduates are female, and less than one third of science academic and research staff are women.

Gender bias and stereotyping begins at a young age.

My own son, when he was just four years old, said to me “Mummy, you can’t be a doctor, because you’re a girl.” 

That one was a big eye-opener for me. I knew we had a problem, but for my own son to say that was pretty gut-wrenching.

So, as often as I can, I involve myself in initiatives that work to show girls that they do belong in STEM.

The girls I’ve met through Curious Minds have knocked my socks off.

These girls are bright, bubbly, creative and ambitious.

Will they all go on to have careers in STEM? Probably not.

But hopefully, through this program, they will know that they can.

And they will build the confidence to chase their own dreams.

​​Dr Mary McMillan is a lecturer at the University of New England’s School of Science & Technology.