Aboriginal people were the first astronomers of this beautiful country. Yet the field of astronomy and astrophysics is male-dominated and non- Indigenous. When Kirsten Banks set out her career in astrophysics, she didn’t see many people who looked like her.
The young Wiradjuri woman studied physics at UNSW and is currently doing her PhD in Astrophysics. She is one of a small number of Indigenous women working in the field of STEM in the country, and wants to challenge the inherent stigma that women are not as capable as men.
“We need to change the narrative to represent the diversity in STEM to show young Indigenous girls that they can succeed in these fields,” she told me. “We need to amplify the voices of these role models.”
From a young age, Banks was uncompromising about her ambitions. “I knew that I was passionate about astrophysics and nothing was going to deter me from becoming an astrophysicist,” she said.
Banks persisted, despite recent evidence that suggested Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are less likely to express interest in a STEM-related career.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students represent a small proportion of STEM enrolments in tertiary education, especially in the physical sciences, architecture, IT and engineering.
In Australia, Indigenous women working in STEM face a double prejudice for their gender and cultural background.
According to the 2017 paper “Australian Government Strategy to Boost Women’s Workforce Participation”, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students have lower STEM engagement, poorer STEM outcomes and perform worse in STEM education than their non-Aboriginal peers.
In addition, young Indigenous women in STEM are often the first member in their family to attend university. These numbers are not exclusive to STEM fields. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have a lower rate of workforce participation compared to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men – 51.5 per cent and 65 per cent respectively.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women face unique challenges, often assuming caring responsibilities at an earlier age and being disproportionately impacted by domestic violence. Furthermore, stereotyping, gender bias, racism and lack of Indigenous female precedence can alter a young Indigenous woman’s decision to pursue a career in the field.
In 2017, the Turnbull government tried to turn those tides when it announced a $138 million investment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students through the Government’s 1967 Referendum 50th Anniversary Indigenous Education Package which included a $41 million package to support Indigenous women and girls’ access and engagement in education and employment.
The following year, Turnbull announced a $25 million investment over ten years to support the greater participation of Indigenous girls in STEM. The sum was used to set up a new STEM Scholarships Fund to support Indigenous students to study and secure jobs in STEM fields, including a $15 million contribution to the Indigenous Girls STEM Academy, which will support up to 100 Indigenous girls each year to explore the possibilities of a STEM career through school, tertiary education and into the workforce.
Liz Kupsch, the Team Leader of the SSiSTEMIK program at the Stronger Smarter Institute, believes that any good reform takes at least 6 years.
Last year, she spoke to Joe O’Brien on ABC news about the PM’s announcement of $200 million for Indigenous Education, where she stressed the importance of asking the right questions.
“What does a program which is about growing the numbers of Indigenous teachers in STEM look like? Where are these people? Are we talking to people who are leaders in that area?”
“Any good reform takes 6 years. There needs to be cultural awareness. Who are the people going in and what do they understand about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples? What connections are they having during their studies?”
Kupsch has been a teacher for more than two decades, and described to me the mismatch between what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People bring to the STEM space and what education systems deem valuable, relevant.
“Young Indigenous girls need to see themselves represented in what they are learning. Students need to be interested before they can fully engage in what they are learning.”
“Students need to know that they are a dynamic part of the learning process not just static recipients of it. This also places the teacher in the role of facilitator and co-learner. This is extremely important because teachers need to know their purpose and understand exactly who they are working with, who their community is and all the things about their students that have an impact on their lives and in this way students can start to experience success.”
The Indigenous Girls’ STEM Academy commenced in 2019 with an intensive STEM residential program, taking 100 Year 8 girls, aiming to increase the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander females undertaking studies and careers in STEM.
Over the next decade, the Academy will support 1000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls and young women, ensuring students will be best-placed to complete their STEM qualification.
Renee Phillips, co-founder of the National Indigenous Youth Education Coalition, told me of the importance of recognising the Indigenous cultural traditions in STEM.
“Cultural practices that have sustained our mob for over 60,000 years – we were the first innovators, the first true ‘scientists’” she said. “All the skills within Science – observation, experimentation, communication, perfection are all living skills that run through us, it is in our DNA.“We need to rethink what STEM means to us as blackfellas – that we have in our DNA the skills of observation, experimentation, inquiry, communication, perfection and young Indigenous women need support to see that they do.
“Our survival is a testament to that. Our culture, our practices, traditions, our learning and being on country utilise all those skills. STEM is naturally integrated in our everyday life. Young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have a natural talent for STEM.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People and their communities were disproportionately affected.
Astrophysicist and Gamilaraay woman Karlie Noon, told me she was seeing a lot of young girls disengage and a lot of teachers and parents burn out.
“There are obviously huge concerns about the quality of education all students have received in the first half of the year. From what I have seen, this is across all levels of education. The way students were thrown around back and forth has sent them a very clear message – that going to school is not purely about receiving an education.”
“There is an underlying assumption that all households have equal access and equal opportunity to access these lessons,” Liz Kupsch told me.
“Unfortunately this is not the case for every student especially for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. Time will reveal the effects that COVID will have on our Indigenous girls but we do know that disrupted learning anytime has an impact.
Now more than ever we need to be investing in supporting our students to ensure that the impacts of COVID are minimised.
Renee Phillips too, wonders about the balance of positively or negatively impacts of the pandemic on young Indigenous girls. “Perhaps for the first time they took charge of their learning and determined what they needed to learn,” she said.
“Education during COVID was not equitable. I know not all Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander young women had access to steady internet, or even a computer.”
“Towards the other spectrum, perhaps during COVID young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women may had developed a greater interest and passion for STEM. They may had used the time to learn more about their culture and language. Perhaps by having the opportunity to be more at home and more time with family and more time to spend on country that their motivation to learn increased and thus their interest in STEM grew or developed.”
Karlie Noon agrees there may have been positive outcomes to consequences of the pandemic.
“I hope at the very least students were able to realise their full potential in conducting independent learning. I hope our young people realise they don’t have to depend solely on our educational institutes to obtain knowledge.”
Noon also believes adults need to speak up.
“We know that very few of us received a fair and accurate history lesson of what occurred in this country for the past 65,000+ years. We know that many of the teachers “teaching” maths are sadly not trained in the subject but dumped in there out of necessity.”
“We all know that our kids have to deal with stereotypes and unfair expectations being placed on them, as the majority of our schools and institutions are culturally ignorant.”
“My number one concern for all young people today is their future with respect to climate change. At the very least, this pandemic has given our planet a much needed break from our polluting and damaging ways of living. All of us, especially our young people, now know that other ways of living are possible.”