Female academic writing on white board

International Day of Women and Girls in Science

11 February 2021
Encouraging women and girls in the pursuit of science
The 11th of February is the UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science: a day that recognises the achievements of women in science and aims to encourage women and girls to pursue studies and careers in STEMM.

In the quest for gender equality, in 2015, the United Nations declared 11 February as the annual International Day for Women and Girls in Science.

It is a day to inspire girls to choose STEMM-related subjects at school and women to pursue a career in a STEMM related field, as well as recognise the achievements of women in STEMM. 

According to UNESCO data, only around 30 percent of all female students select STEMM-related subjects in higher education.

Globally, female student enrolment is particularly low in technology (3 percent), natural science, mathematics and statistics (5 percent) and engineering, manufacturing and construction (8 percent).

The University of Sydney took an important step towards changing gender inequality in science in 2016, when launching the Science in Australia Gender Equity project. It set clear goals for reaching gender equality throughout its faculties.

Seven University of Sydney academics and students discuss the importance of women and girls in STEMM, and share what women and girls who work in STEMM can achieve.

1. Protect the environment

Dr Hogg believes involving women in STEMM fields could lead to better custodianship of the environment. Credit: Pexels

In 2019,  School of Life and Environmental Sciences academic, Dr Carolyn Hogg, participated in an all-female scientific expedition to Antarctica.

She believes having women in STEMM who can work on these global challenges is important to ensuring the long-term sustainability and survival of the planet.

"This is nowhere more obvious than in Antarctica, where cooperation and collaboration is key to understanding and protecting this critical ecosystem," said Dr Hogg.

“Diversity in the workplace is important as it brings a range of ideas to addressing some of our most challenging problems.

"Women are known to be more collaborative and empathetic in our leadership styles.

"Globally we are facing a period of mass extinction and biodiversity loss, meaning we need a diversity of ideas to address these challenges.’’

2. Find galactic missing matter

School of Physics PhD candidate Yuanming Wang has developed an ingenious method to help track down missing baryonic matter that has alluded scientists for decades.

Yuanming has tracked down 'missing' baryonic matter. Credit: University of Sydney

Baryonic matter makes up about 5 percent of the contents of the universe. From the stars to slugs and puppies, it makes up everything in our daily life. It is classified as 'ordinary' matter, being made of protons, neutrons, electrons, which up the chemical elements.

She has applied her technique to pinpoint a hitherto undetected stream of cold gas in the Milky Way, about 10 light years from Earth.

The results have been published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and offer a promising way for scientists to track down the Milky Way’s missing matter.

3. Design our future cities and pioneer space exploration

Professor Paradowska at work. Credit: University of Sydney

Professor of Practice from the School of Civil Engineering and ANSTO scientist, Anna Paradowska, is an international expert in the characterisation of advanced manufacturing processes, in particular, additive manufacturing and welding.

She believes there’s a bright future ahead for those who choose a career in STEMM, saying that: "we need to make sure that girls are well prepared and inspired to take full advantage of it!”

“In my opinion it is clear that engineering is a fascinating career for girls who are curious and like to solve problems, and many female engineers are proving just that.  From designing our future cities and transport systems to becoming pioneers in space exploration, girls can and should engineer our future.

“I have the pleasure of working with people who are not only bright, but who are also driven and keen to make an impact on the world through science and engineering. Being in a stimulating environment and helping our clients from academia and industry find solutions to their problems brings me a lot of satisfaction, and I believe this type of problem solving is well suited to women and girls.”

4. Help people living with dementia

With alternatives to residential aged care in high demand, a new program – Care of People with Dementia in their Environments (COPE) – has been created to support people with dementia and their carers to live well at home.

Researchers aim to fast-track change in the aged and health care sector. Credit: University of Sydney

The program, led by Professor Lindy Clemson from the Faculty of Medicine and Health and the Charles Perkins Centre, has been brought to Australia from the United States and is showing significant societal and economic benefits.

The researchers partnered with Flinders University and 17 organisations across New South Wales and South Australia and demonstrated in a translational study that the program is effective for the many different services that work with people with dementia in Australia. An outcome of the project is national training for occupational therapists and nurses.

5. Work alongside NASA

Engineering/Science student, Elle Miller

Engineering/Science student, Elle Miller, will be working with NASA this year as she completes her undergraduate thesis. Credit: Elle Miller

Elle Miller is a fifth-year undergraduate student studying a Bachelor of Advanced Science (Physics) and a Bachelor of Engineering Honours (Mechatronic/Space). As part of her honours thesis she has been selected to work with NASA.

"There, I will work on the autonomous robotic exploration of extreme terrains for future use on moons, planets and even Earth-based scenarios," said Ms Miller.

"My four years as a STEMM student has been the most inspiring, rewarding and exciting experience of my life, and I know this path will continue to challenge and motivate me for decades to come.

“From my experience, I believe it is crucial to give interested young women that extra ’nudge’ and courage to pursue STEMM. I was extremely lucky to have a huge ‘nudge’ in the form of a brilliant high school physics teacher who worked tirelessly to inspire us girls with the wonders of science, in particular, the captivating mysteries of space.

"Without his unwavering enthusiasm and encouragement, I most likely would not have enrolled in mechatronic space engineering and physics degrees, and most certainly would not have had the opportunity to work at NASA as a 22-year-old.”

6. Develop a method to clean up wastewater using electricity

Julia Ciarlini Junger Soares showcasing her work at the University of Sydney. The researchers used an advanced oxidation process that eliminated stubborn organic aqueous pollutants. Credit: Julia Ciarlini Junger Soares, University of Sydney

Julia Ciarlini Junger Soares is completing a PhD in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and recently developed a method to clean up wastewater using electricity.

“Based on my academic experience in STEMM for over 10 years, I believe that if you are a woman and you have a true passion for science and engineering, there is absolutely nothing stopping you from pursuing this career and succeeding," said Ms Soares. 

"Diversity is the key to drive innovative solutions, and I see that we still need to decrease the gender gap in this field.

“My research team at the University of Sydney, led by Associate Professor Alejandro Montoya, has applied an electrochemical oxidation process to clean a specific type of wastewater, heavily contaminated with a mix of organic and inorganic elements during a biofuel production process.

"The treatment process is relatively simple, does not require the addition of chemicals or severe operation conditions, and should not produce additional waste streams.”

7. Improve menstrual health and hygiene  

Dr Erin Hunter, lecturer in Global Health at the University of Sydney, was a key contributor to UNICEF's Guidance for Monitoring Menstrual Health and Hygiene.

The guide provides an evidence-based approach to assessing the effectiveness of programs developed to help girls and women address their menstrual needs.

Dr Erin Hunter (right) with colleagues in Bangladesh. Credit: Dr Erin Hunter

Increasingly, attention has turned to improving conditions for menstruating girls and women across the world. In November, Scotland became the first country in the world to offer free universal access to sanitary products.

Efforts by women in India to make low-cost and biodegradable sanitary pads were captured in an Academy Award-winning documentary, Period. End of Sentence.

“We are beginning to see more funds directed to addressing the menstrual needs of adolescent girls. It’s a cause that is becoming more popular. The increased interest is very welcome, but we need to keep pace with assessing what is working and what isn’t working,” Dr Hunter said.

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