Women in STEM: from the 1903 laboratory to the 2017 classroom

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  • August 29, 2017

By Rachael McCullough

In the lead-up to the In2science event Supporting girls in STEM: Strategies for the Classroom and Beyond, we reflect on the position of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths, the role of outreach programs and the importance of role models and mentors.


Marie Curie

Marie Curie was the first person in history to win two Nobel Prizes. Image credit: The Wellcome Trust.

A Historical Challenge

Think of a famous woman in science. What’s the first name that comes into your head?

It’s likely you thought of Marie Curie, one of the most famous scientists of all time.

Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 for her groundbreaking research on radioactivity. In 1911, she received her second Nobel, this time in Chemistry. She was the first person to win twice, and remains the only person to have won the prize in two different sciences.

Marie’s scientific prowess was incredible. But what is equally incredible is the scientific community’s reaction to her achievements. Even after making history by winning both prizes, Marie was rejected from membership into the French Royal Academy of Sciences in 1911. Instead, the Academy elected Édouard Branly, a man who helped with the early development of the wireless telegraph.

Marie’s story highlights just some of the historical obstacles that prevented many women from pursuing careers in science and maths. Throughout history, there have been countless other women whose contributions to science were overlooked, neglected or credited to others.

Women in STEM today

We have come a long way since Marie Curie’s rejection from the Royal Academy. Women all over the world can now vote, graduate from university, hold academic positions, run businesses and are leaders in every field of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). However, the shadow of inequity and discrimination still lingers over STEM in the 21st century.

In 2016, only 32% of STEM academic and research staff at Australian universities were women. This statistic mirrors that of STEM degree enrolments. Only 33% of STEM Bachelor degree enrolments in 2016 were women. 

And what’s more, women are more likely to underestimate their own abilities in STEM subjects than men. One study into a phenomenon known as stereotype threat showed that women performed worse than men on a maths test when told that gender is a predictor of their test score. However, when this stereotype threat was eliminated, the difference in performances between men and women was eliminated.

What we can do

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Science outreach programs and role models encourage increased STEM engagement by girls.

Gender equity in STEM is a multi-faceted and historical problem that can’t be solved overnight. While there are still many obstacles in our path to an inclusive and diverse STEM community, we can see initiatives that are gently but steadily moving us in the right direction by sharing inspiring science through role models and activities. Science outreach programs like Robogals, that specifically aim to inspire young girls in STEM, are active in many cities in Australia and in many countries around the world. Films like Hidden Figures (2017) highlight the untold stories of marginalised mathematicians and engineers in America’s mission to the Moon. And Science and Technology Australia’s recently launched Superstars of STEM program places outstanding role models in front of aspiring scientists, mathematicians, inventors and innovators across the country.

In2science is committed to gender equity in STEM in Australia. Classrooms and online mentoring platforms can be positive environments for young girls to be exposed to new ideas, inspired and encouraged by mentors to pursue whatever sparks their interest. There are also many programs and initiatives that can complement school based STEM learning.

To highlight just some of the resources available to educators and mentors to support girls in STEM, the In2science team is excited to be hosting a panel discussion and networking event on Thursday 7th September.

Join the discussion

Supporting girls in STEM: Strategies for the Classroom and Beyond will take place on Thursday 7th of September 2017 and feature an expert panel discussion, followed by break-out discussion groups and a networking expo featuring a range of organisations and programs committed to STEM outreach and gender equity available to talk to at the conclusion of the event. If you are a university student, mentor, teacher or simply interested in promoting gender equality and diversity in STEM, we encourage you to join the discussion. This event is made possible by the generous support of the Selby Scientific Foundation. 


Register for the event here! http://bit.ly/In2scigirls