Victoria Reynolds is a PhD candidate in UQ’s School of Biological Sciences; her thesis is focused on investigating the pollinator spill-over and exchange between crop systems and natural habitats in agricultural landscapes. She reflects on her career as an Australian female scientist.
As children we are encouraged to dream big, and many young girls do aspire to careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). However, female talent is lost at every career stage in Australian STEM fields – a distressing fact. While reflecting on my career for this post and the reality that I’m unusual in persisting to this stage of a STEM career as an Australian female scientist, I asked myself: how exactly have I done this when so many of my sisters (many better and brighter than me) have floundered on the rocks?
I believe mentoring is key. I was fortunate to have been raised by a family that valued education. My parents taught me that school is important, reading is fun, and that curiosity about the world is vital. I absorbed these messages subliminally and never questioned them. At the same time, I can’t remember a moment when I didn’t feel that I was different and “not quite as good” as my male peers. Though I spent hours riding around on my bike with the neighbourhood boys as a kid – and was easily able to keep up with them – I was still routinely ridiculed for being a girl whenever I fell behind or had to stop to tie up my hair. I soon felt that being a girl wasn’t good enough, so I dressed like a boy and actively avoided anything that made me “girly”. I came to think of my gender as a drawback.
Come primary school graduation, I was announced as runner up for dux – the prize went to a boy. Afterwards, my principal congratulated me and explained how it was a close race but my maths and science scores had let me down. He comforted me by saying maths comes less easily to girls. This single comment reverberated in me for years – I am still incredibly insecure about my math abilities. Although this is common – studies show up to 88 per cent of young women suffer from this same insecurity – I had once again been told that I wasn’t good enough because I was a girl.
Entering secondary school, I vowed to work diligently to make up for my “weaknesses” in maths and science. Despite being among the top of the class, I was afraid I would appear dumb by raising my hand or asking questions. This hesitancy hindered my understanding.
In Year 11 and 12, I was fortunate to have a strong and encouraging female science teacher – she was a revelation! She was young, trendy and embraced her femininity instead of hiding it. Under her mentorship, I started feeling more comfortable and confident in myself. Her kind words showed me I was capable of overcoming my insecurities, but it was perhaps her visage and innate intelligence that helped me realise that you can be feminine and smart. It’s only upon reflection that I realise how vital this positive role model was to me. At her urging I sought tutoring for chemistry and ended up getting the subject award in Year 12.
During my time at university, I have often questioned my place here – despite commencing my PhD and winning a Fulbright Scholarship at 24. I’m uncomfortable speaking up in group situations and often feel my opinion is less valuable than others around me. Once again, it’s the encouragement of my mentors and the support of inclusive colleagues in my workplace that continues to help me overcome these feelings.
I’ve been fortunate to have encountered and worked with many wonderful and inspiring female scientists. With their guidance and encouragement, I’ve grown both academically and personally. I now study a subject I’m passionate about and I find research very rewarding. In the past few years, my fieldwork has enabled me to travel across Australia. I’ve stood dusty boot to dusty boot with Western Australian farmers, discussing crop concerns and giving practical advice that’s well received.
Working with a team of intelligent, enthusiastic, generous and kind colleagues, I’ve found myself embracing my identity as a female scientist. My PhD supervisor, Associate Professor Margie Mayfield, once noted to me that success and promise is generally equated with masculine attributes, such as outward displays of confidence and authority. She noted that these attributes aren’t required to be an exceptional scientist. I’m not assertive and I don’t always speak with authority and confidence but I am a scientist – and a good one. As I mature as a scientist and a person, I have started to consciously “un-learn” common perceptions and fully recognise that great minds and great ideas come in many different packages, including one that looks and acts like me.
It’s heartening to observe that my striving for an internal sense of equality is being paralleled externally by our society. The recent explosion of support for women scientists on Twitter is a case in point. I’m referring to the viral hashtag #distractinglysexy, which started in response to Sir Tim Hunt’s poorly worded toast to female journalists and scientists. As is typical of the Internet, the response was swift and scathing – but it offered an almost unparalleled opportunity for female scientists to unite across the “twittersphere”. This awakening in the zeitgeist is reinforced by the announcement that LEGO will soon release a series of “Women in STEM” figurines – what a refreshing toy option for young, impressionable minds that will be!
So I ask: equality – are we there yet? Definitely not. Statistics sadly reflect our continuing shortfalls in STEM education and employment equality. However, we have benefited from remarkable progress in only a generation or two. Yet, how can we build on the trailblazing pioneers that have gone before us? I believe it’s by formally mentoring the girls and women we encounter and, more informally, just being a woman that others in your field can look up to. Directly rewarding young women’s hard work, acknowledging their accomplishments and telling them that it’s OK to get things wrong and to have to keep working at them (rather than suggesting this is a sign of inadequacy) is key to building the confidence of the next generation of young women interested in science and maths.
To young women considering a future in science, I say this: if you have curiosity, passion and drive, a career in STEM is well suited to you. To those already in a STEM field, reach out and be a supportive and encouraging guide to future students. I look forward to seeing the next generation climb on to our shoulders to reach as-yet uncharted stars. On International Women’s Day, and every day, I urge you to be the change you want to see in the world and have faith in the ripple effect.