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September 20, 2015 | by  | in News Splash |
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Sy-STEM-ic Sexism?

Auckland University recently held its annual “Women in Science” forum, somewhat ironically sponsored by L’Oreal, on their campus, with presentations from leading female scientists from across the world.

150 girls from 15 Auckland schools attended a special event targeted at cultivating a love of science in young women today. It aimed to counteract perceived stereotypes and notions that STEM careers are no place for a women.

Traditionally speaking, science and career choices within the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields have been a boy’s game.

Last week French company Opinionway held an online “Women in Science” survey of 5032 people in which two out of three respondents said women don’t have what it takes to become top-tier scientists.

Former Vic student Rachel Wilcox, who recently gained her Master’s of Science in Marine Biology, insisted that although she couldn’t recall any specifically sexist experiences during her time as a student she acknowledged that “the general feeling in the science industry that the higher you go, the fewer women there are”.

“It’s almost an expectation that women will drop out of academia to have babies, or that we have to sacrifice family/relationships for the sake of a career,” she said.

However, the issues aren’t exclusively structural. Another student, Bella Ansell, who studied for her Bsc Hons in Geochemistry in Melbourne, told Salient she often received comments about what she was wearing and a male supervisor gave her the nickname “fashionista” while a male colleague told her that “having a girl tell me what to do is like having someone younger than me telling me what to do”.

“During a Skype call in which I was talking to a technician while I was fixing a pretty delicate and expensive piece of laboratory equipment I was told by the technician in question he ‘liked seeing a girl getting her hands dirty’ and that I ‘really knew how to work a screwdriver’,” Ansell said.

In New Zealand, there are various grants and scholarships in place to help women in science excel. UNESCO has partnered with L’Oreal Paris to offer a $25,000 grant for women in science, with the first ever one being awarded to an Otago University geologist, Dr Christina Riesselman.

While Riesselman said she was “incredibly privileged” to win the award, she acknowledged the gender imbalance in academia.

“Between my two departments, there are no full professors who are women,” Riesselman said. However, the Otago University lecturer remained positive, suggesting “maybe we can be optimistic and say that some of these people will trickle up”.

When it comes to the Technology sector, the gender gap remains the same if not worse, with a Stack Overflow survey finding 92 per cent of 26,086 web developers worldwide identified as male. In New Zealand, ITSalaries.co.nz found 79 per cent of the tech workforce was male.

Vice Provost (Academic and Equity) Allison Kirkman told Salient that she “regularly asks Victoria Academic Review Panels to consider the gender balance of both staff and students. This is particularly important in programme such as STEM where there may be a lack of women internationally and nationally.”

Kirkman also stated that because of the small number of female academics in STEM fields, “women scientists may find their support and mentoring networks with those in other universities in New Zealand. Victoria always encourages this with all women academics.”

The Government Budget last year put aside $85 million for science subjects in tuition subsidies for STEM students.

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