Stepping up for women in science

Soapbox Science Brisbane organiser Alienor Chauvenet discusses the need to promote gender equity in science.

The battle for gender equity in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM) disciplines is fought on many grounds by both men and women. Universities and research institutes need to do their parts. For example, they can sign-up to be part of the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) pilot of the Athena Swan Charter in Australia, an initiative designed to address staff diversity issues in universities. Or they can make sure that students of all genders have access to all STEMM disciplines, removing biases and gendered stereotypes. But how do we address the persistent scientist stereotypes so commonly held by the public?

I understand if this sounds like a bold statement: compared to the average Australian, I live and work in a wealthy and educated bubble. I am a research scientist in ecology and conservation, which is part of the biological sciences. Biological sciences are one of the few disciplines where gender ratios are nearly equal – although that does not preclude issues of career progression for women. If you are like me, you may be forgiven for thinking that gender equity issues are so passé, and that the average person has moved on from thinking that scientists are old, white, men. Unfortunately you would be wrong.

Soapbox Science Brisbane organiser Alienor Chauvenet.
Alienor Chauvenet. 

As recently as 2015, L’Oréal conducted a survey of women and men from France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy and China, to ask about their opinion on women in science. While not a perfect study (some aspects were criticised heavily), the results make for a depressing read. I encourage you to read them, but the take home message is “67 per cent of Europeans think that women do not possess the required capabilities in order to access high-level scientific positions”.

This is a massive issue and it will take time to address. It is daunting –and a little bit depressing - but we should try to fix it!

So what am I doing about it? I teamed up with two colleagues from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions at UQ to organise a women in science event for National Science Week 2016, called Soapbox Science Brisbane 2016.

Soapbox Science is originally a UK initiative created by two fantastic women, Nathalie Pettorelli and Seirian Sumner. It has been running since 2011, when it started with one event in London for the year, and has since grown to 14 events in 2016!

Nathalie and Seirian very easily convinced me to take Soapbox Science to Australia as I was a volunteer at the first two events in London. I am therefore very familiar with how wonderful an initiative it is, and very proud to bring it down under!

What is Soapbox Science Brisbane? First and foremost, it is a free to attend, family-friendly event where 12 women scientists stand on soapboxes and take their science to the streets. A key aim of the initiative is for scientists to directly engage the public, especially people who do not usually engage with science.

The second aim is to showcase women who are successful scientists. They get to talk about their own research for an hour, interact with the public, and even conduct interactive experiments. We want to change that persistent idea that women are not fit to be scientists. We want kids to be as likely to draw both genders when asked to draw a scientist. No more of the old white bearded men stereotype!

  Nathalie Butt, Katrina Davis and Alienor Chauvenet
Soapbox Science Brisbane organisers: Nathalie Butt, Katrina Davis and Alienor Chauvenet.

I am not going to lie, organising Soapbox Science Brisbane has been a lot of work, but there is clearly a demand from our women colleagues for such opportunities. For example, even though this is the first Soapbox Science in the Southern Hemisphere, we had 57 applications for our 12 speaker spots. Choosing was really hard, but we have managed to secure outstanding women in all career stages and working in diverse areas such as physics, maths, chemistry, neuroscience, ecology, biotechnology, palaeontology and more!

Soapbox Science Brisbane 2016 will take place on Saturday, 20 August, in King George Square (Brisbane CBD) between 1pm and 4pm. Please come along to learn, have fun, and be amazed.

Alienor works at The University of Queensland ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions. Email her on a.chauvenet@uq.edu.au, or catch her on twitter @AChauvenet).

Last updated:
16 August 2016