Home Education ‘Kids are born scientists’ – Siouxsie Wiles talks STEM and sexism

‘Kids are born scientists’ – Siouxsie Wiles talks STEM and sexism

We've heard plenty about efforts to make science, technology, engineering and mathematics - or STEM - a more diverse space and one that appeals to tomorrow's bright minds. Are they working? Jamie Morton talked to one of our best known role models for science, University of Auckland microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles.

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By: Jamie Morton

People have conscious and unconscious ideas about who is “best” at doing STEM, says University of Auckland microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles. Photo / File

Why is it so important to have more diversity in STEM?

When we bring people together and they all look alike and have similar backgrounds and similar life experiences, they’ll tend to come up with similar ideas for solutions, or be interested in tackling the things they see as important problems.

This means lots of really good ideas and solutions get missed, and lots of really important problems end up not being tackled.

The only way to make sure we can capture all of that diversity of thought and experience is to make sure the people in STEM are diverse.

There’s been a big push over recent years around this. From what can you see, has it worked?

I have no doubt that we are getting more diverse people interested in STEM, but from what I can see we aren’t doing enough to tackle the reasons why many women and people from under-represented minorities leave STEM at later stages in their career.

That’s because they are working in difficult environments, where they are often undervalued and not given the same opportunities as, or considered equal to, the white men around them.

People have conscious and unconscious ideas about who is “best” at doing STEM, and the very depressing fact that qualities seen as strengths in men are seen as weaknesses in women.

It’s biases like these that mean that quite a few senior men find me baffling – how can someone with pink hair be serious about science?

The real question is, what has the colour of my hair got to do with my ability to do science?

Absolutely nothing, of course.

It’s not until we tackle the conscious and unconscious biases we all hold about who can succeed in STEM, and change the system so that it doesn’t incentivise and reward the types of behaviours often displayed by over-confident white men, that we’ll see real change.

If you look at STEM graduates coming through the pipeline now, how does that compare with when you were at that stage? Was it very much male-dominated?

I’m a biologist, so that’s a subject that’s traditionally had plenty of women encouraged to pursue it as it’s seen as more feminine and not as “hard” as chemistry or physics.

But despite this, the majority of full professors or people in positions of power are men.

So biology serves as a good warning for how shoving more women into the “pipeline” is useless if the system is stacked against them to succeed.

Is this a problem that’s any worse here in New Zealand?

No, it’s a problem pretty much everywhere, although countries like the UK and Australia seem to be doing more to try to tackle it.

What do you tell kids today to get them motivated or interested in a career in the sciences? And do you sense a perception change among our young?

I’ve been talking to kids about science for about 15 years, and I’ve always found them to be really enthusiastic about it.

Kids are born scientists.

What differs between individual kids is whether they see themselves as able to have a career in science, and part of that comes down to whether they have seen people that look like them as scientists.

For the past few years I’ve started my school talks with a little quiz.

I show pictures of real scientists doing their hobbies – from playing in bands, to skateboarding and dancing – or spending time with their families.

I also throw in a few stock photos of scientists, so people who are not scientists at all but are dressed like people think scientists should look like.

All the kids, and usually the teachers, pick the people in the stock photos as the scientists, over the real scientists who just look like normal people.

One thing I have noticed though, is that if the kids do pick the real scientists as scientists, they pick the men and not the women.

And it’s the same for the teachers.

So that just goes to show that teachers and kids see men more as being the scientists than they do women.

Source: NZ Herald

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