In the last 20 years, the digital revolution has changed everything for young women interested in pursuing a career in STEM. In the brain, my area of research, advanced microscopes now let us image within individual cells the size of 10 microns, or roughly one seventh of the width of a hair. At UQ’s Queensland Brain Institute, we can visualise new cells being created in the brain in real time. It’s never been a better time to be a neuroscientist.
But despite advances for females in STEM, the gender gap in science is an ongoing problem. These days, a third of STEM university students are female, yet women researchers in Australia only hold 20% of senior positions.
Gender inequality in STEM has tangible downsides: without a female lens, clinical trials have in many cases focused on drug effects in the average male. Before it was recognised that women show different symptoms of heart disease than men, misdiagnosis of heart attacks in female patients was a decades-long problem. Addressing the gap can help us improve research and healthcare.
Growing up in India, I was fortunate to have the full support of my parents in pursuing a career in science. As I was completing my PhD, I watched as female friends were married off young and relegated to looking after the home. I am incredibly grateful to a number of outstanding mentors who have provided freedom to pursue new research directions, opportunities to collaborate, and supported my travel to various laboratories and meetings around the globe.
But it shouldn’t just be the lucky ones who make it up the career ladder. The drop off for women in STEM, as for other industries, occurs mid-career, when many begin to start families or take on additional caring responsibilities.
I’m hopeful that in the coming decades, we can reach a point where we no longer need to discuss gender balance. The push for flexible working hours and on-site childcare facilities is heartening, as are initiatives such as the Science in Australia Gender Equity pilot program, which UQ is taking part in. As more women climb the ranks, and successful females pay it forward through mentorship, innovation in STEM can only flourish.