How to survive gender inequity: a guide for women in STEM


Relaxing Otters

“Conversations were intimate, open and authentic and that was the point of difference” says Laura Griffiths

By Laura Griffiths

Women researchers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) face a range of personal, financial and ethical challenges in order to maintain successful careers in their field. Shared problems include a lack of female senior academics to provide mentoring roles, losing the competitive edge when taking time out to pursue a family, and societal pressures of motherhood irrespective if women actually have children or not. The problem is not the number of women pursuing careers in STEM, rather it is glass ceiling effect of women not advancing to senior leadership roles, particularly in the field of environmental science.

There are strong women like Emma Johnston, actively trying to pave the way for equity in STEM. There is also considerable discussion about how women have pioneered the way and continue to push this space, however there is still a long road ahead and parity is a long way off.

As a representative of PhD students within the Australian Rivers Institute (ARI) at Griffith University, and with the recent release of the Women in STEM Decadal Plan, we, the PhD cohort, wanted to talk to women currently engaged in STEM jobs to provide insight into how other women find success and survive in this field. We organised a panel discussion, in collaboration with the South East Queensland branch of the Australian Marine Science Association (AMSA), so attendance at the event extended to those outside of Griffith University.

We never anticipated what a huge ‘feel good’ success it would be. The diversity of panel speakers and their breadth of experience over the course of their science careers gave the audience a deeper understanding and appreciation of the challenges that women scientists face. The panellists themselves were open, personal and honest about their experiences as women in STEM. Intimate discussions included the challenge of balancing careers and families and societal challenges about what women should be doing to be successful whilst maintaining balance and self-worth.

Dr Emma Kennedy’s, from the University of Queensland, advice was to find your “Raft of otters”, because female sea otters raft up to keep them from drifting out to sea. Emma emphasised the importance of finding female mentors and networks to help overcome the pressures and expectations for women in academia – something she discovered through her involvement with Homeward Bound.

Dr Esther Onyango from Griffith University refreshingly discussed how women should forget to strive for the unobtainable notion of ‘work-life balance’. She says it’s ok to make a change and move away from regimented work commitments if you are not feeling fulfilled and happy. Esther taught us that no amount of cramming yoga poses or Pilates before work will help you to balance your work-life if your work-life balance actually needs a major overhaul.

Dr Dana Burfeind, also from the University of Queensland, gave heartfelt advice about not having regrets, prioritising what is important and balancing perspectives. Her journey made her discover that if your career is all that you have, there is nothing to hold you up when things go wrong. Dana emphasised the importance of finding other things in your life that make you feel happy and fulfilled in addition to your career.

Heidi van Woerden from CQG Consulting and Director at Gold Coast Marine Training and Cap Coast Marine Systems, discussed how her strong determination allowed her to succeed in the male-dominated marine industry of boating. Heidi emphasized how important roadblocks and challenges are to success. She said everyone is going to fail at some point but these failures make us think laterally, be creative, and most importantly allow us to build resilience.

Other insightful discussions were around defining success. We learnt that we, as women, need to be more flexible in our approach to defining and measuring success. Success needs to be more than the number of publications or climbing a hierarchical ladder. Rather, we need to take stock of other achievements in our career and take comfort in them, such as growing collaborations, leading projects to fruition and finding alternative pathways in order to achieve a better life balance.

We also discovered that the imposter syndrome is still very real, even for those advanced in their field and talking about that alone brings relief to all.

I think I can firmly say that everyone walked away from the event with a smile, a positive attitude, and comfort in knowing we are not alone in facing these challenges.

How to survive gender inequity: a guide for women in STEM

  • Build a ‘raft of otters’. Craft a support network to get you through the tough times and give you solace.
  • Don’t have regrets. Your career is not everything, so allow space in your life to find other things that make you happy.
  • Switch it up. It’s ok to change your career if you are not finding fulfilment or balance.
  • Be yourself. Don’t try to live up to other people’s expectations or who other people think you are.
  • Define your own success. Keep track of all your achievements, even the seemingly small stuff.
  • Set benchmarks. Monitor work-life balance over timeframes that are meaningful. Look over the last month (or longer) to measure your success in delivering this balance.

Stay flexible. Adjustable working arrangements are important if you are juggling family and career, so find an environment or career that supports this.

What participants said:

“Inspiring, authentic and heartfelt presentations by today’s Women in STEM panel” Dr Megan Saunders, Senior Research Scientist at CSIRO.

“I found the … panel inspiring and challenging, but grippingly honest and real. I wish that some of the discussion could be spread more widely.” Dr Dave Rissik, Senior Principal Scientist within Climate Change Adaptation at BMT.

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