Why are they ignoring women scientists?

A national team of researchers studying the high school science curriculum across the country discovered that of the 145 scientists mentioned, only a single one of them was female.

“Today I woke incandescent with rage. One. Female. Scientist.
That’s how many are mentioned in Year 11 and 12 science textbooks across Australia.
One. Out of 150. And, NONE where I live in WA. Not one woman is mentioned in Year 11 and 12 textbooks here.
All the work 
Women in Technology WA Inc. (WiTWA) does revolves around one premise:
If you can see her, you can be her.
How on earth do you expect the young women you’re teaching to feel welcome, valued or appreciated in science if their potential role models are invisible?” Lacey Filipich

Lacey Filipich is a chemical engineer turned financial educator and member of Women in Technology (WA). Like many, she was shocked and angered following the release of research from the Australian National University and Curtin University which analysed the curricula of four Year 11 and 12 science subjects from across the country. Lead researcher Dr Kat Ross released the findings in August 2023, showing that Australian high school students studying physics, biology, chemistry and environmental science were exposed to only a single female researcher across the four subjects, British chemist Rosalind Franklin, compared to almost 150 male scientists.

Dr Kat Ross is an astrophysicist who founded the #IncludeHer movement, which calls for increased visibility of women’s contributions to STEM and representation of women and gender minorities in STEM education.

“As a proudly bisexual and agender person who was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult, I strongly believe in creating an environment in science that is welcoming, safe, and engaging for everyone,” explains Dr Ross. “But as I pursued my career in astrophysics, with an Advanced Science degree from Sydney University, I was constantly reminded of how few people like me seemed to work in Physics. At the end of my undergraduate degree, I worked in Physics education research, helping to train teachers in NSW on techniques to increase engagement with students. It was as part of this job that I discovered not a single woman was mentioned in the entire physics curriculum. This was the beginning of IncludeHer.”

The IncludeHer team, which is now a national group of researchers, conducted the comprehensive analysis of Australian science courses to analyse the gender representation of scientists mentioned.

“Our team found clear bias in the way we presented science to students, with an emphasis on the “lone-male-genius” narrative, teaching students that science was done by men making isolated discoveries, while working alone and women have had and continue to have no role in science. This is extremely inaccurate and particularly damaging to students at a stage in their learning where they are deciding what career to pursue.” Dr Kat Ross

Invisible Women

Filipich’s work also involves increasing the representation and information about female scientists after leaving the mining industry and struggling to find a community of like-minded people. “I joined WiTWA (Women in Technology WA) in 2017 and led the team that established the 20in20 Awards [now the WiTWA Tech [+] Awards],” explains Filipich. “I was looking at the 87 entries for the 2018 awards, thinking Only 20 of these women will get a trophy, but the world needs to know about them all! Now all our nominees can be found on the Role Models page – there’s hundreds of them. Whenever someone tells me they couldn’t find a woman for the job/board role/speaking spot, I send them there.”

The claim of ‘not knowing’ is something that Ross has also come up against. She explains: “So many people have responded [to the research] saying they don’t know of any women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) and so of course they’re not included in the curriculum. It’s upsetting because it’s so close to the point! Many people don’t know of the incredible work women have done and the discoveries women have made because of a persistent undervaluing of the work of women, not just in STEM, but more broadly.”

She is quick to add, though, that the response of teachers has been heartening. “So many teachers have come forward saying they hadn’t noticed this before, but now that are making a dedicated effort in their classrooms to make sure women are being included and students are learning of the history of exclusion and discrimination of women in STEM.” 

Dr Ross points out that women’s absence from the text books is not because they have had a limited role in science. “Our team, IncludeHer, has created an encyclopedia of over 300 women from around the world that have worked, or are working in fields that directly relate to content being taught in high school courses. Personally, I am a huge fan of Ruby Payne-Scott, a radio astronomer that helped to establish Australia as one of the powerhouses in this field and pioneered the foundations of instrumentation and analysis of radio astronomy data.”

The Lone Star

But where does the buck stop when it comes to the messages students receive in their textbooks and high school classes?

“Someone – or several someones – have dropped the ball,” says Filipich. “I don’t know where the buck stops. Is it the authors of the textbooks? The publishers? The people who set the curriculum? Probably all share in the blame, but I’d suggest that the curriculum development is the main culprit as they are the buyer of the textbooks and have the power to say they won’t buy a book without sufficient representation.”

It may be argued that learning should be just about the science and the content, but Dr Ross says this is fundamentally untrue. “Science is never free from society, it is done by scientists who are part of society with their own biases, funded by governments that dictate what they value in research and based on an academic system that was designed to exclude anyone that didn’t fit into a very narrow and exclusionary definition. We know that science is not separate from society, so why should science education be?”  

There is another change Dr Ross would like to see alongside greater representation of women and minorities, and that is a move away from celebrating individuals who are often just one part of a larger team.

“I think more broadly, we need to be having discussions with students about how science is done. I would love to see science always being taught with a special focus on the historical biases of science and what they have manifested into today. It has never been done by individuals; science is a team sport done in collaboration. Having open and frank discussions with students about why we see such a pervasive narrative of the “lone-male-genius” scientist in the media and why women are less known is extremely important. Unless we actively and openly address the way women, and people of colour have been treated in science, we cannot hope to undo the unconscious bias.” Dr Kat Ross

Where to from here?

Do a quick Google search for Women in STEM and you will be rewarded with multiple projects, initiatives, research groups and even a Federal Government ambassador position. It’s been declared a priority on all levels, which is why the findings of Dr Ross’ research are even more disappointing.

“I feel like the education system and all who speak for it are hypocritical,” says Filipich. “For all their talk about promoting STEM subjects for women, they haven’t done this single, simple, transformative thing.”

So what is the solution for more women scientists?

Ross says: “In the short term, we should be correcting the representation of women in science courses. By simply including the names of women next to the work they have done that we’re already teaching students, we can dramatically increase our representation.”

But there’s a step even further she would like to see the education system take.

“Every state and territory uses an outdated and highly criticised pedagogy of teaching science in a chronological manner, learning about the science as we discovered it. This leads to a highly Eurocentric focus, without a single Australian scientist mentioned anywhere. It results in a very historical narrative that gives the impression we’ve already discovered and solved everything there is to know. This is extremely inaccurate, and not engaging for students, particularly women and minorities. In the long term, we need to be changing the way we approach science education with a focus on modern science and applications of science in the modern world.”


Shannon Meyerkort

Shannon Meyerkort is a freelance writer and the author of "Brilliant Minds: 30 Dyslexic Heroes Who Changed our World", now available in all good bookstores.

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