Today is the United Nation’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science. This year’s theme is “Investment in Women and Girls in Science for Inclusive Green Growth”, so I’m sharing some thoughts from my own roundabout journey into science.
Science was never a career option for me as a child. This was purely an accident of circumstance, rather than any obvious exclusion. My amazing single mum prioritised my and my sister’s education, sacrificing her own career to provide the best education opportunities for us. I grew up in a rural area, surrounded by forest. We had no television, so I spent my childhood reading books or outdoors in nature. Every opportunity, mum bought us books and games about natural history, wildlife, and geography. I loved studying maps, reading history, learning about landforms and biodiversity, and devouring stories of people living on the land. But I was picked on at school for knowing these things.
At no point during my formal education do I remember thinking that I could ever pay the bills through my affinity with nature. And I definitely didn’t think of nature study as ‘science’.
I was interested in the things that were presented to me as science, but more so in the aspects that had ‘Earth’ relevance. Mum signed me up to CSIRO’s legendary Double Helix club at a young age, which I loved well into high school and cherished reaching gold membership status. But the memorable bits that stand out for me were: the geology set I won in a monthly competition (a collection of different types of sands and some volcanic ash!); signing up as an amateur storm-tracker for CSIRO/BOM weather data collection (before citizen science was a thing!); and winning an essay competition about global sustainability challenges.
I went to a public school on the once-rural Sunshine Coast in south-east Queensland. We were dirt poor, so I missed a lot of school excursions and extra-curricular activities because mum couldn’t afford it. In class, I was a good student. I excelled at maths and science in junior high school, and was put into a science/maths extension class. I don’t remember much about it, but I think most of the class were boys and a lot of activities involved testing gravity, making esters, transistors etc.…the usual ‘cool science’ activities.
By the time I got to senior high school (years 11 & 12), where we could choose electives, I’d lost interest in science. I didn’t choose Biology because my older sister had done it, and I knew it was all about cells and organisms, not ecosystems. I chose Physics and Chemistry only to please my mum, who wanted me to get the best grade for university entry (different subjects were weighted differently, which influenced your entry score – in general, science subjects were weighted more than humanities/creative subjects).
At the end of year 11 I failed Chemistry, partly because I disliked my acerbic female teacher who took every opportunity to single out my shortcomings. Failing the subject finally convinced mum to let me change to Geography for Year 12, which I’d wanted to do all along. I stayed in Physics because I kind of enjoyed it, even though I just scraped through a pass. I was one of only two girls in the class, but the male teacher and the rest of the boys in the class never made me feel different (I still remember Woodsy as my favourite high school teacher!). My poor grades were a reflection of my inability to learn things I wasn’t particularly interested in, not because of bad teachers or unsupportive environments. I topped the school in Ancient History because I wanted to learn it – I know the gods and goddesses in the Greek and Roman pantheons, but I still can’t tell you what quantum mechanics is.
When it came time to choose university preferences, I still didn’t consider a career in science. From my experience through school, and pop culture representations of science at the time, ‘science’ was all lab coats, medicine, electric currents, and agar plates. I wasn’t interested in any of this. No one told me Ecology was something completely different to Biology! So I followed my best subjects and did an Arts degree in English.
It wasn’t until my mid-20s, after a few unfulfilling jobs in corporate communications and other false starts, that I finally discovered that ‘environmental science’ was actually a real discipline…and it provided opportunities to pay the bills while working with nature! So I took a huge leap and went back to university to embark on a second degree with the hope of finding a career path I loved.
It wasn’t an easy journey (nothing worthwhile ever is!), and there were times during the degree that I wasn’t sure of a future – I was told I would never have a research career because I couldn’t write code or do nice lab experiments, and some lecturers marked down my assignments because I didn’t write in traditional scientific style. I’m now halfway through my second postdoc. I’ve experienced my share of unfairness in the system and I still don’t have job security; but I love my job and feel like I have a career future for the first time in my life.
There is no single ‘right’ path to a scientific career, and we need to support more girls to find their own science futures. So I’m really happy to see this year’s theme is ‘green growth’, building off the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. This is a timely reminder of how often environment gets forgotten as an integral part of science. This year, let’s make an effort to change that.
- Science is so much more than lab coats and technology. We need to promote natural sciences, ecology and environment as a valuable and attractive scientific career opportunity. Our planet, and everything on it, is facing the biggest global environmental challenges of all time – these challenges affect every single one of us. No single discipline can solve these problems, we need scientists of all kinds working together. But we especially need more scientists with deep understanding of ecology, natural history and environmental processes.
- There is no single ‘right’ path to science. We need to support girls to navigate multiple pathways to lead them to the science experience that works for them. Girls need to know how and when to recognise their future in science, even if their school/community experience has led them to believe they don’t fit the traditional mould of a scientist.
- We need to address the academic bottleneck at the top end if we want to encourage more young girls to pursue research careers. While there are many non-academic career paths that women can take post-PhD, we also need to ensure women are not giving up on the career they love and excel at, simply because there are not enough secure opportunities. And what about PhD alternatives for students who want more than a basic undergraduate degree but don’t wish to pursue academic careers? Offering postgraduate diplomas in research skills may be more useful for women wanting to pursue scientific careers outside of academia.
- We need to promote the many ways science increases value in other career paths. We urgently need more specialised journalists with ecological knowledge, more environmental lawyers, and more business CEOs and managers with comprehensive knowledge of sustainability and ecological complexity. We also need more women making a difference by applying ecological science to make change through non-profit and community organisations.
© Manu Saunders 2019