Last year, Australia, and particularly the scientific community, was ecstatic at the naming of Prof Michelle Simmons as Australian of the Year. Her work in quantum computing at the University of New South Wales, and launching Australia into ‘the space race of the computing era’ makes her a more than worthy recipient of this award.
In her acceptance speech, Prof Simmons spoke of the unique Australian culture and how it manifests in an academic environment. Importantly, she also spoke of her experiences as a woman in STEM, and this is where we need to think critically about how statements such as those made by Prof Simmons shape our behaviour and expectations of young women.
Prof Simmons declared that she found it useful to be underestimated due to her gender, because she has subsequently “flown under the radar… and been able to get on with it”. She then encouraged young women to ignore what people think of them, and to defy expectations.
Whilst this advice is admirable in its intentions, we desperately need to change this conversation.
Despite knowing the insidious and persistent nature of gender bias and inequity in STEM systems, processes, and cultures, we still expect so much more of young women than we do of young men. This double standard is currently the status quo and will continue throughout their lifetimes if we don’t change the conversation today.
In this day and age, it should be reasonable to expect that young women could enter the STEM workforce and get a ‘fair go’. Such is not life for these young women, and we need to change this. Young women shouldn’t have to put up with the ugly manifestations of gender bias in schools and workplaces. They shouldn’t have to just get on with it.
There should be no biased expectations to defy in the first place.
I urge all of us to hold a higher standard for our expectations – not of young women – but of everyone’s behaviour in our STEM industries and our educational institutions. The standard we walk past is the standard we accept. If we do not challenge biased expectations of what young women and men should or shouldn’t do, be, or achieve, we endorse gender bias and inequity, and it will always remain the status quo.
So, instead of telling young women to tough it out and just get on with it, let’s change the conversation. Let’s step up and fix what they have to deal with in the first place. Check out the rest of The Fortem Project to learn more about the issues and what you can do to drive change for gender equity in STEM.
If not us, then who? If not now, then when? – John Lewis