Federal Goverment reshuffle shows science, women not valued

Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

When he was four years old, my son told me I couldn't be a doctor because I was a girl.

Rest assured, many years and conversations later, he now understands that girls can be whatever they want.

But it goes to show how deeply engrained these societal gender stereotypes are, when even a four-year-old is picking up messages that there are some careers for boys, and others for girls.

I've written before about gender equity, or the lack of it, in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) sector. Of all STEM-qualified jobs in Australia, only about 14 per cent are held by women.

Less than a third of people working in scientific research roles are women. Fewer girls than boys are choosing science subjects at schools and going on to study science at university - despite boys and girls having equal aptitude for the subjects.

Over the past few years it felt like we were making progress. We've had government reports and the development of an Advancing Women in STEM strategy and action plan.

We have a Women in STEM ambassador, we have institutions undertaking accreditation through the Science in Australia Gender Equity initiative, and we have initiatives like the Superstars of STEM program increasing the visibility of women in STEM in the media.

It's all been starting to feel a little bit hopeful - as though our research organisations, the media, and the government are taking this issue seriously.

And then last week I swear I could hear the collective screams of scientists around the country, particularly my fellow women in STEM, as a ministerial shuffle was announced, and a new Minister for Industry, Science and Technology was appointed.

A Minister without a STEM background, who's previously taken an anti-scientific stance on some key issues, and who's currently under scrutiny due to allegations of sexual harassment and rape.

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What message does the new appointment send about how valued the science and technology industry is here in Australia? So valued it's seen as a low-profile portfolio where you can "hide" an embattled Minister?

And what message does this appointment send to women in STEM, and girls considering a career in STEM? That the government is really committed to creating an inclusive, diverse and safe industry for us all?

It speaks volumes about our government's attitude not just to science and technology, but also to women.

When it comes to Ministerial appointments, Prime Minister....read the room.

  • Dr Mary McMillan is a senior lecturer at the School of Science and Technology, University of New England