New initiative challenges gender stereotypes

The Science 50:50 initiative has a simple premise – since half of the population is female, why not also half the scientists and technologists?


Veena Sahajwalla with some of the 50:50 students. Photo: Gary Ramage/Newspix

Launched by UNSW Scientia Professor Veena Sahajwalla, the Science 50:50 initiative aims to inspire young women to pursue degrees and careers in science and technology. It will provide internships, scholarships and mentoring to girls so they can succeed in an innovation-driven future. The initiative is supported by Professor Sahajwalla’s Australian Research Council (ARC), Laureate Fellowship and UNSW, along with scientific and industry partners.

Girls are under-represented in the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The number of female high-school students taking advanced maths, for example, is half that of boys and only 1.5% of Year 12 girls study the STEM trio of advanced maths, physics and chemistry.

This has a lot to do with their perception of science as a career, says Sahajwalla, who is director of the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology in the Faculty of Science (SMaRT@UNSW), and who was the only girl in her engineering course at university. “If we want to secure Australia’s future prosperity, challenging the stereotype of the scientist as a man in a white lab coat is a good place to start,” she says.

Science 50:50 was launched at the National Youth Science Forum in Canberra, where a gathering of Year 12 students who are interested in science heard Sahajwalla highlight the exciting and varied opportunities provided by scientific careers.

Speakers at the launch’s panel discussion on women in science included ARC chief executive officer, Professor Aidan Byrne; vice president and chief operating officer of Lockheed Martin Australia, Laura Frank; and chief executive corporate affairs at Arrium, Gillian Burrows.

Sahajwalla was awarded a prestigious Laureate Fellowship worth $2.37 million over six years last year, to undertake her research on transforming toxic electronic waste into high-value-added metals and alloys. It included additional funding to help promote female participation in science.