Girls should never settle for second in science – The Australian

Sunday, 01 January 2017

Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel has written a joint op-ed with Male Champions of Change in STEM convener Ann Sherry that was published by The Australian on 23 January 2017.

Legend has it that a young woman named Maria Sklodowski was once offered the gift of a dress for her approaching wedding. She replied:

I have no dress except the one I wear every day. If you are going to be kind enough to give me one, please let it be practical and dark so that I can put it on afterwards to go to the laboratory.

On the day she married she became Marie Curie. And in her serviceable dark blue bridal gown she made the discoveries that opened the door to the nuclear age, picking up two Nobel Prizes on the way. She remains to this day the one female scientist, living or dead, that respondents to surveys can reliably name.

Curie was undoubtedly exceptional – but not because she was a woman with a talent for science. She was exceptional because she was a woman who had a chance to use her talent, and she seized it as a person of exceptional will. For most women, in most societies, for most of history, that chance was denied.

We have come a long way from the days when women were cheated of education, barred from careers and hidden from the historical record. But we are kidding ourselves if we imagine the battle is won.

As a society, we still struggle to recognise science talent in female form. Worse, we still raise too many girls to doubt the potential in themselves across the disciplines we group together as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

With students heading back to school, it’s timely to reflect on the impacts of the messages we send.

In Year 4, one in three Australian girls has confidence in her mathematics abilities, compared with more than two in five Australian boys. By Year 12, there are two boys for every girl in advanced mathematics – and three boys for every girl in physics.

By graduation day, men account for seven of every eight information technology bachelor degrees, four in five physics and astronomy degrees, and two in three mathematics degrees.

Those women who do qualify in a STEM field are far less likely to reach the top income bracket than their male counterparts, regardless of whether or not they have children, and even if they work in a full time role.

Are girls born less capable in science, mathematics or technology? For proof of what girls can achieve, look at Singapore, the undisputed leader in the school education stakes. Across the six science and mathematics domains of the international tests PISA and TIMSS, there are just two in which a statistically significant difference appears between boys and girls. In Year 8 TIMSS mathematics, the average girl outperforms the average boy. In PISA science, it’s the other way round.

If we educate Australia’s girls to settle for second – assuming we encourage them to stay in the contest at all – we can hardly be surprised if they rise no higher than the expectation we set.

Setting the bar low for any child is cruelty, but surely, writing off half your population is simply foolishness – particularly in the fields that can position this country for prosperity in the decades ahead.

As leaders in business, research and government, we have both sat on too many male-majority panels at male-majority events, where matters of importance to this country’s future were discussed.

We have both worked alongside women of extraordinary talent and many times seen them denied the chance to thrive in the workplace.

We can only imagine how many more women of that calibre we might have been privileged to know if they had been better supported to study and pursue careers in STEM.

For these reasons, we are proud to be leaders in the Male Champions of Change in STEM.

The Male Champions of Change in STEM are leaders of organisations that together employ over half a million workers and represent billions of dollars in annual spend. They are united by a commitment to advancing gender equality within their own organisations and more broadly, supported by the conviction that progress for women is progress for Australia.

We recognise that there is no single step we can take that will deliver the complex change we need to see: the change that will shift the status quo. As Marie Curie said, the way of progress is “neither swift nor easy”.

But top of the action agenda is leadership, at every level. Leaders decide what matters to their organisations, and leaders assemble the resources to bring about change through practical action. Leaders, male or female, can choose to make a difference. We should and we will. Watch this space.

Dr Alan Finkel is Australia’s Chief Scientist

Ms Ann Sherry is Convener of the Male Champions of Change, STEM group

For more information on the Male Champions of Change, STEM group visit

Last updated: Wednesday, 30 October 2019