A man and his son are in a car accident. The son is rushed to hospital in a critical condition. The doctor walks into the operating theatre and says “I can’t operate, this is my son.” Who is the doctor?
When I first heard this riddle I ashamedly did not proclaim immediately that the doctor was the boy’s Mother. Why is it that the picture in my head of the archetypal doctor is always male? How are these intrinsic cultural biases around women’s ability effecting how women succeed in the world?
In Conjunction with the Cooperative Research Centre’s Australia 2040 Forum, Margot and I attended the Gender Balance in Science Panel held at The Brassey of Canberra. The discussion was opened with the fact that jobs of the future are gearing towards those within the STEM fields. Although this should not arouse alarm, one only has to look at the figures to see that women are incredibly underrepresented within STEM fields, despite having equal representation at Undergraduate level. Throughout the discussion, many of the panellists argued that although the job market is moving toward science and technology, women and girls are been left behind due to the inherent gender biases and stereotypes around women’s abilities within these fields. Panellist Lisa Annese from the Diversity Council Australia shared an anecdote of her experience as a year 12 chemistry student in Sydney, where she was one of two girls in the class. The teacher instructed them to face the wall away from the class because they were distracting and did not belong there.
Although shocking, we can only hope that such practice is only a reminder of the explicit sexism and gender biases many women experienced in our history. Unfortunately however, we are been anchored down by these biases by recent comments such as that made by Nobel Laureate, Sir Tim Hunt, proposing single sex labs due to women’s distracting presence and their inability to be criticised without crying. Just like when Astronomer Professor Shrinivas Kulkarni used the analogy “boys with their toys” to describe science, women responded using twitter with the hash tags #distractinglysexy and #girlswithtoys, showcasing the thousands of women around the globe engaged in scientific exploration whilst astoundingly, being female at the same time!
Scrolling through the hundreds of photographs on twitter depicting the female presence in the scientific community, we are reminded that in order to challenge the engrained stereotypes and biases around gender we must reflect on the true definition of our reality. What is obvious from the hundreds of women engaging in the twitter hashtag campaign is that the stereotypes surrounding women’s ability in science are false. Women can and do excel within STEM fields. The question we must ask ourselves is why our beliefs around women’s abilities within the scientific fields are evolving at a glacial pace?