Smashing gender assumptions in science

Dr Amy Heffernan is a feminist, science communicator and NHMRC-ARC Dementia Research Development Fellow in the Molecular Gerontology laboratory.

Dr Amy Heffernan was named one of 30 ‘Superstars of STEM’ earlier this year – smashing society’s gender assumptions about scientists and increasing the public visibility of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). We asked Amy to report on an action packed year.

Science and Technology Australia launched the inaugural Superstars of STEM program in July 2017. This 12-month program aims to raise the profile of Australia’s most dynamic female science and technology researchers and professionals. I was one of 30 successful women selected from more than 300 applicants drawn from science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine disciplines across Australia.

Superstars of STEM was founded on the principle that visibility matters in achieving equality – you cannot be, what you cannot see. Girls and boys have an equal interest in STEM until the age of 11, when girls’ interest starts to wane. The lack of visible and accessible female role models is a key factor in maintaining girls’ enthusiasm for STEM, and ensuring young women see STEM as a viable career option. As such, one of the main objectives of the program was to create a cohort of visible and relatable female role models at the national level.

“As part of the program I have received extensive training in public speaking, storytelling, communicating with influence, and social media; been involved in outreach activities including mentoring, high school talks, and increased social media presence and attended national fora, including the Science and Gender Equity (SAGE) Symposium in Brisbane and Science Meets Parliament in Canberra”

Diversity brings unique perspectives to STEM, increasing the probability of creative and innovative solutions to the world’s grand challenges. Enthusiasm and support for the program has been overwhelmingly positive. In February 2018 the Australian Government committed resources to expand the Superstars cohort to 60 women per year for the next 4 years.

However, much work remains to be done. It is essential that equity and diversity initiatives move away from “fixing women” via upskilling, or stuffing more young women into a pipeline full-to-bursting at the junior levels, and redress the structural and social barriers that prevent the retention and promotion of women. Australia’s future depends on it.

Superstars of STEM was founded on the principle that visibility matters in achieving equality – you cannot be, what you cannot see. Follow Amy on Twitter @DrHeffo.