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Where are the women in STEM?

19 November 2018
By Adam Spencer, University of Sydney's Mathematics and Science Ambassador
Welcome to the final Science Alliance newsletter for 2018 which features, among other great topics, a focus upon women in STEM.
Adam Spencer

It’s well known that girls are underrepresented in several HSC STEM subjects. In the 2017 HSC, 22% of 2 unit Physics students were female; 8% of 2 unit Engineering Studies students were female; 14% of Information and Digital Technology (VET) students were female; and 8% of 2 unit Software Design and Development students were female. These figures suggest we could do more to encourage young women to enter these fields.

All this sits alongside the fact that one in four girls is not taking any maths subjects in the HSC, compared to one in 10 boys.

On this front, I was concerned to read that the new physics syllabus in NSW will not mention explicitly the names of any famous female physicists. If we want young girls to imagine a life in physics, surely they should be reading about:

  • Marie Curie – the first woman to win a Nobel prize, the only woman to win twice and the first scientist to win Nobel prizes in different disciplines (physics and chemistry)
  • Ruby Payne-Scott – Australian pioneer of radio astronomy
  • Rosalind Franklin – who showed us the structure of DNA
  • and other women who have made huge impacts in STEM.

As Kathryn Ross and Tom Gordon, from the School of Physics at the University of Sydney, wrote recently, "A syllabus that correctly represents people in the field of physics can help reduce unconscious bias and demonstrate to young women there’s a place for them in this field.”

This is a complicated issue and will take a long time to resolve, but in this century that will be built by mathematicians and scientists, it is beholden upon us to do what we can to make sure that any woman with an aptitude for STEM studies and a scientific career has every chance to fulfil that wish.