We spoke to three Monash University students and alumni — Pippa, Ghina and Michelle — about their experience as a woman working in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields.
What did you study and where do you work?
Michelle: I studied a Bachelor of Science (Honours), majoring in Genetics and I am a research assistant at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.
Pippa: I’m currently studying a Bachelor of Environmental Engineering, and I am an Environmental Officer at Fulton Hogan, a tier one construction company, working on the M80 Upgrade.
Ghina: I’m in my third year of studying Software Engineering. I’m currently working as an R&D consultant at KPMG, to basically help companies better classify their IT projects.
What kickstarted your interest in STEM?
Michelle: I distinctly remember dreaming of becoming a scientist in primary school, beginning as a curiosity of wanting to understand the world, eventually turning into an interest in biology and genetics.
Pip: I love challenges and being out of my comfort zone so I think having a career which was less popular for women (in Engineering) was exciting for me rather than daunting.
Ghina: I grew up in Saudi Arabia, where the “doctor, lawyer or engineer” mentality is still quite strong, so a non-STEM field was just never going to sit well with my parents. And when was time for me to choose my VCE subjects and I chose IT simply because the teacher was known to be very forgiving. Turns out I was good at it, so I thought, “If it’s good enough for Gates and Zuckerberg, it’s good enough for me”.
Did you have any role models in the field?
Michelle: As a geneticist, I also greatly admire Rosalind Franklin and her crucial contribution to solving the structure of DNA.
Pip: I didn’t really have many female role models in the STEM field. In fact, when I was in year 11 there was only myself and another girl that studied physics in the whole year level of 400 people!
Ghina: Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla. Some may say that I should find myself a female role model, but I stand firmly behind the idea of not discriminating between genders in any way, even this. He’s leading a global change and people don’t talk about it about enough.
What would be your dream job?
Michelle: A researcher and professor with work that lets me travel all around the world.
Pip: What I am passionate about is engineering in developing communities. I would love to travel and learn about other cultures and communities whilst creating innovative design solutions to challenges that are present: sanitation, access to electricity and more.
Ghina: I think I’m most likely going to follow my father’s footsteps and get into IT-related business. I’ve had the chance to explore the field of technology and see how fascinating it is, so I think I would really like to bring more aspects of it to the general public to enjoy and benefit from as well.
What do you think of the perception that STEM is still a ‘man’s field’?
Michelle: I agree with such a perception, as for example, the general perception of what a scientist looks like is that of a middle-aged man in a white lab coat. The lack of representation can be discouraging for women wanting to work or advance in the STEM fields. However, there are increasingly more initiatives in place to encourage and acknowledge women in STEM.
Pip: I think the stereotype of STEM being a men’s field is no longer a completely true representation of reality. But I have found working on site in the construction world to be a slightly male dominated environment. Most of the labourers are male but there are quite a few females in the project team working as engineers.
Ghina: It’s usually the outsiders who always feel the need to remark on me being a girl in IT: “is it difficult? Do you get treated bad? Do the guys snatch up the jobs first?”. If we just stop promoting that image, we might see a lot more girls joining STEM fields without being scared of how they might get treated.
Have you ever felt discouraged or treated differently for your gender at your work or in your studies?
Michelle: Whilst I have not been personally subjected to such discrimination, I have, in recent years, become very aware of such biases in the STEM fields, through stories of upsetting experiences from peers and the media. So there exists a fear that such experiences will happen, which can sometimes in itself be discouraging.
Pip: I can’t recall ever being discouraged to pursue a career in engineering. In fact, many people promote how it’s a great time to be an upcoming female engineer because there are so many new opportunities opening up for us at the moment.
Ghina: I have been offered jobs before simply because I’m a female in the field. There is so much pressure on employers to have more STEM females, but it should be on parents and schools. Girls are not entering STEM fields because they’re presented to them as boring and not rewarding enough, not because they wouldn’t be able to find jobs. The industry is ready for them now, a lot more than it was a decade ago, but they’re still not coming.
What would you say to encourage students interested in STEM?
Michelle: Best to get a feel for what working in your STEM field of interest will be like. Talk to people working in that field, and get as much experience as you can, for example through volunteering, educational programs.
Pip: If I speak to engineering specifically, I would encourage students to study and work in the engineering field as it teaches you to think outside of the box and to problem solve which is not only valuable in your career but throughout life. Ten out of ten, would recommend.
Ghina: This is going to be cheesy, but seriously, just do it. And if you don’t like it, it’s fine, you don’t have to stick to it. And if you do have to stick to STEM fields, then that’s also fine, because they’re incredibly broad and inclusive and there’s something within them for everyone.