Empowering women of colour in STEM fields is what STEM Sisters is all about, and the non-profit organisation has just been recognised for its efforts by taking out the Business Award at this year’s TechDiversity Awards.
STEM Sisters works to support women of colour in STEM to achieve professional liberation, economic empowerment and the freedom to pursue professional goals, without externally imposed limitations.
Founder and Director of STEM Sisters, Dr Ruwangi Fernando notes that they were the first dedicated organisation to empower women of colour in STEM, and addresses the intersectional challenges faced by culturally and linguistically diverse women in STEM through a range of initiatives.
Dr Fernando started STEM Sisters in 2017 to attract and celebrate women in STEM at Victoria University. She saw a gap in Australian programs focused on the unique intersectional challenges and barriers for women of colour in STEM and decided to do something about it.
The issues women of colour in Australia face when trying to secure a STEM job come from the combination of gender and racial bias and Dr Fernando says, “STEM Sisters fills the much-needed gap of gender equality in the Australian STEM sector,”
Dr Fernando considers it an honour to win the Business Award at Techdiversity 2022 and says that it keeps her going. She’s won many accolades for her academic and professional contributions but sees this one to be quite a special recognition in her entrepreneurial journey.
“To found and grow STEM Sisters while reading for my PhD as an international student was extremely challenging, and I’m so grateful for everyone who supported me in the journey,” she says.
Receiving her PhD and gaining over 16 years of experience in broader IT technologies as an Information Technology Specialist, including Artificial Intelligence, Dr Fernando is now a changemaker advocating for an intersectional approach to diversity and inclusion in the Australian STEM sector.
Back when Fernando first arrived in Australia from Sri Lanka, she was immediately struck by the barriers that migrants and women of colour faced in STEM fields, which saw some changing their names to be more western and not having their qualifications acknowledged fairly in the job search.
According to STEM Sisters, less than 40 per cent of the STEM workforce are female. Of this, only a small fraction is culturally diverse.
Under Dr Fernando’s leadership and an independent advisory panel of well-recognised STEM diversity and inclusion experts, STEM Sisters has grown to over 100 volunteers running nine structured programs, each one addressing a particular barrier or challenge for women of colour.
In addition to its formal work, STEM Sisters has built up a network of over 700 women in a private LinkedIn group that shares professional opportunities and offers a supportive community for shared experiences. They’ve also conducted many successful social media advocacy campaigns.
STEM Sisters is home to a diverse group of STEM students, recent STEM graduates, early career STEM professionals, STEM returners and STEM experts.