It isn’t rocket science: Munya’s personal reflection as a woman of colour in STEM
As a child, I was always fascinated with planes. How did they fly so effortlessly and gracefully while carrying all those people and luggage? I’d silently wonder in amazement. That silent wonder eventually turned into a love for physics in high school and a desire to become a pilot. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to turn that pilot dream into a reality – the high upfront costs were a deterrent for mum and dad – but a career in aviation was still on the cards. High school work experience as an air traffic controller at Melbourne Airport and encouragement from my high school physics teacher to pursue an aerospace engineering degree cemented that future.
This week is National Science Week, Australia’s annual celebration of science and technology. Running each year in August, it features more than 1000 events around Australia, including those delivered by universities, schools, research institutions, libraries, museums and science centres. These events attract a wide audience from children to adults, and science amateurs to professionals.
The Australian Government is driving efforts to encourage gender equity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and careers. Complemented by significant action occurring across the sector, the government’s actions are already contributing to change in Australia’s systems, institutions and workplaces as detailed in the Advancing Women in STEM 2020 Action Plan. Reflecting on my engineering education and career to date, I can certainly say there have been improvements, but we still have a way to go.
My first day at university was a stark introduction into the lack of diversity in STEM education (and what I eventually learnt careers to be too). Counting a handful of women and people of colour in the overflowing lecture theatre, I knew the next four years would make for an interesting ride. As I approached my final year, I remember asking academics for career guidance, most cautioned against a future as a professional engineer claiming, “it’s a man’s world” and “it’s too difficult for women”. At the time I would cheekily joke “well, it isn’t rocket science, I’m sure I’ll figure it out”. But those words stuck with me. Why was it difficult and a man’s world?
As I entered the workforce, representation at all levels was still low. Oftentimes, I have been the only woman in a room, felt the need to prove myself in order to be heard or have witnessed appalling behaviours and attitudes reflected as “the norm”. Despite the challenges, I’ve had many rewarding opportunities across my career, including mentoring female high school students from minority backgrounds to consider a career in STEM and supporting company initiatives targeted at improving recruitment and retention in STEM careers.
Being a woman of colour in STEM has let me see and understand the unique challenges faced by other women from an intersectional lens, be empathetic to them and look for ways to improve and educate. From my experience, I believe we can create a more inclusive environment in STEM workplaces by:
- Uplifting voices of women and people of colour
- Educating yourself and others and engaging in respectful conversations
- Mentoring and sponsoring women and people of colour
As we celebrate National Science Week, let’s all reflect on our role to support each other and recognise the work of women and people of colour in STEM among us. My career in STEM continues to be incredibly rewarding and fulfilling and I hope this will become the norm for all.