Women in STEM on the lessons from an unprecedented year

‘We need different people & skills working together’: Women in STEM on the lessons from an unprecedented year

In this piece, Women’s Agenda speaks with a number of women leading in STEM– both established and emerging– to gauge their perspective on the pandemic and the lessons we can learn from an unprecedented year. Thanks to the Australian National University (ANU) for their support of this feature.

This year, the world turned its attention to experts as Coronavirus ravaged the planet.

It’s been experts who informed us how the outbreaks occurred. They’ve advised us on navigating next steps and implementing preventative measures in the future.

Without their guidance, we would be facing an even darker reality.

In Australia, we’re lucky to have a wide diversity of experts leading across health data and STEM, many of whom have contributed to our navigation of the pandemic. However, we still have work to do where it comes to the representation of women. At present, women make up only 16% of Australia’s STEM-skilled workforce and are underrepresented in STEM university enrolments as well.

The talent of women in these fields is significant and we need to do more to build the pipeline of future leaders. If nothing else, this year has proved how a diversity of perspectives and expertise benefits the world in crisis.

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Dr Meru Sheel, a leading epidemiologist at the Australian National University (ANU) , believes that the COVID-19 vaccine rollout “will be the biggest challenge of 2021″ and “a test of global solidarity and diplomacy.”

Having trained as a lab scientist, Sheel later turned her attention to studying epidemiology, an intersection of lab sciences with public health and communication.

Working through the pandemic has been both “surreal and exhausting,” she says, and stresses the remarkable pace at which science about a new disease has evolved especially in the vaccine space. “It’s exciting – seeing the speed at which the knowledge has come,” she shares.

Ellen Broad is an expert in AI and the author of ‘Made by Humans: The AI Condition’ — a book that explores our role and responsibilities in automation and AI design.

Having worked on a range of issues related to data sharing and use, Broad believes this year’s events have demonstrated the importance of critical thinking and the intersection of skills in communication, translation and analytics.

“There’s clearly a need to be able to link STEM issues with politics and journalism,” she says. “These are rare skill sets that are unique – the ability to interrogate texts and understand the contexts of issues.” 

The importance of an interdisciplinary approach

“This pandemic has shown we need different people and skills working together,” says Dr Sheel, adding that “an interdisciplinary approach is one where that we can feed many different disciplines into bigger responses”.

“There should be partnerships between academic institutions and governments. A cross collaborative, whole society approach is most effective,” she says.

For Sheel, it’s all about impact.

“When we have the security sector, the health sector, the welfare sector — when they all combine, there will be more effective impact,” she says. “The potential and visibility when you have a partnership of interdisciplinary teams is something that is incredibly valuable.”

Broad, who began her tertiary studies majoring in Law and English Literature, agrees that a diversity of experience is crucial when it comes to navigating crises like the COVID-19 pandemic.

“What matters is that the industry evolves to define itself according to the wide set of perspectives, the rich range of skills and expertise, that go into making technology work for humans,” she wrote in the Griffith Review.

So how do emerging STEM leaders feel?

Sarah White, an ANU data engineering student working at the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, believes good outcomes are achieved through policies formed and backed by a broad range of experts.

“Social, cultural and economic factors are key in how a pandemic plays out,” she says. “The best solutions will be informed by a range of disciplines.”

In her work, White looks at the social and economic factors that drive housing outcomes, and their subsequent effect on health and wellbeing, which she says offer many fascinating lines of inquiry.

During the last few months of the pandemic, she’s noted worrying trends in the evolving demand for specialist homelessness services.

“Our data showed agencies were assisting growing numbers of Australians experiencing family and domestic violence, mental health issues and financial and housing stress.”

“A multi-team and multi-disciplinary effort had us compiling, shaping and packaging rapid, frequent data updates for decision-makers,” she says. This is why we need a range of thought-leaders involved in solving larger, deeply complex problems.

Alex Sneddon, a first year PhD student, currently studying approaches to decode signals in transcriptomic data, developing algorithms to improve RNA sequencing, agrees that diversity is critical in STEM.

“A lack of diversity is detrimental to the problem-solving process,” she says.

“I think that this process is largely a function of the project team, and without a broad range of inputs, the output is going to be inherently limited.”

The importance of women

Across industries that have long held additional challenges for women, pushing for equality has been tough.

But agitating for a new status quo is imperative.

Broad believes having women involved in scientific design and innovation is essential to ensure the products and systems that end up shaping our lives benefit those of us who have historically been overlooked.

“The reality is that a lot of the technology that is being designed today impacts on our lives,” she says. “Our daily experiences are becoming increasingly personalised, so it really matters whose perspectives are part of designing technologies”.

“The absence of women’s perspectives can often result in technology that is blind to the impact on us,” she adds.

Throughout her career, Broad has spoken out about gender inequities. As she describes in her essay, “workplace dynamics and cultural attitudes still persist in making women of all ages, ethnicities, sexualities, once they’re in the sector, feel undervalued and ignored.” 

Sarah White agrees, saying the stakes are too high to ignore.

“We need all the voices and perspectives in the room,” she says.

“Deeply ingrained, often unconscious, gendered ideas about who is good at what, hurt us all. They hurt us women who have had hidden cultural and social forces channelling us away from engineering and technology. Even when our interests, curiosity and talents made these fields the perfect fit.”

But the flip-side is also true, she says. “These same forces channel some men away from pursuing careers that fit their own passions and talents, because they happen to point towards a female dominated industry. We are all the poorer for it.”

Dr Sheel shares this point of view, and says that while change is gradual, she feels encouraged by recent shifts in the culture of STEM.

“We’ve been on a learning journey trying to recalibrate and redesign technologies,” she says.

“While we’ve seen a history of the absence of female subjects in pharmaceutical trials and on female bodies, this gap is more widely discussed now, and processes are being put into place to address these imbalances.” 

“When we don’t have diversity of all sorts, we lose perspective,” she says. “It could be Indigenous people, women, people of all different ethnicities– everything should be reflective of what the population is.”

“Diversity comes in many shapes and colours. Diversity brings inclusivity. As long as we create a safe space, we will bring in those with unique things to offer. Listening is the key in public health responses.”

Charge ahead and don’t look back

Having spent decades working in a still largely male-dominated space, these women offer sage advice for others considering a career in STEM.

“Do it,” says Broad simply. “Seek out women and men and non-binary people whose values and interests resonate with you. Seek out interesting people that you want to work with. It can feel lonely when you have not yet found your people.”

Dr Sheel agrees, saying that if you’re thinking about it, you shouldn’t hold back.

“Do what you love and love what you do,” she says. “Make sure you have your why and what. How might take some time, but that’s okay. Find yourself the right people. Surround yourself with them and be open to zigzagging. Try a range of different things.”

Ask yourself some simple questions, says White: “Do you like helping people? STEM is for you. Do you like solving problems? STEM is for you.”

STEM is everywhere she says and following careers in these spaces can offer so much.

“Do you want to contribute to solutions in health, climate change, economics, the environment, relationships, industry, youth justice…? Data is everywhere, and that puts STEM skills at the heart of so many areas of government, industry and the non-government sector,” she says.

“Grab yourself some data skills, choose a subject area that burns bright for you and you will make a difference.”

This feature was supported by ANU, Australia’s leader in online graduate certificate offerings in data-related fields. They are teaching the experts of tomorrow how to leverage data and technology to address health challenges.

Find out about ANU data-related graduate certificates and health graduate certificates.

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