Imagine getting to solve the world’s problems and being a part of industry innovation. More and more women are finding a career in STEMM to be exciting, challenging and rewarding.
However, women remain underrepresented in the STEMM workforce in Australia, and research shows men are still more likely than women to consider a career in the science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine industries.
But getting more women into STEMM is a societal and economic imperative for Australia, helping to future proof our workforce and ensuring innovations are gender balanced.
One of the barriers to increasing female representation in STEMM is a lack of role models. So we spoke to fourteen women at various stages in their STEMM careers, working across various disciplines – from civil engineering and geology to data science and software engineering. They share their career goals, challenges, advice and what excites them about working in STEMM:
Why did you choose STEMM?
Brooke Hendrick, Civil Engineer at Calibre Group: I chose STEMM because I had an interest in science, maths and solving problems at school. I like to be challenged with the work I do.
Jenny Byers, Retail Platform Manager at TAL: The curiosity and desire to simplify and improve everyday transactions led me to choose STEMM for a career. I love working with peers who are happy to challenge the status quo, and try new things in a very complex and structured environment.
Tarna Werndly, Senior Resource Geologist at Evolution Mining: I’ve always had a fascination with anything science, and understanding how and why things work the way they do.
Nicole Meaker, Technical Solutions Specialist at Cisco: I had zero interest in STEMM at school. I discovered I enjoyed IT after working in a terrible call centre job supporting dial up internet. My dad is a tool maker and self taught tech wiz. He helped me get started with basic networking and electronics – I built so many electronics kits from Jaycar in my early 20s!
How do you describe what you do to others?
Dakota Harkins, Software Developer and CIO Associate at TransGrid: Software engineering is essentially puzzle solving – it’s like doing Sudoku but with more variables.
Mica Huynh, Director of Software Engineering at Redbubble: I build experiences to make people’s lives easier.
Emma Brand, Project Manager of Hydrogen at Origin: I always say that being a geophysicist means your job is to work out what is in the ground without digging a big hole.
Braveena Santhiranayagam, Data Scientist at Liberty Financial: When my six-year-old son asked me what I did at work, I told him: ‘I look for patterns in numbers’.
What transferable skills or personality traits do you think are important to have for those wanting to get into STEMM?
Naomi Civins, Lead UX Design Researcher at Redbubble: A desire to solve problems and the resilience to bounce back when a solution doesn’t quite work. Also an awareness of how STEMM is used in society, and then taking responsibility for using STEMM for sustainable, humane, caring and positive outcomes – not just profitable ones.
Emma Brand from Origin: Curiosity. The more questions you ask, the more you’ll understand. And like most complex professions, there is always more to learn and another rock to look under (geophysical pun intended).
Natasha Manley, National Planning Manager of Transport Projects at Downer: You need to have an inquiring mind and ability to think holistically. In the discipline I work in (geology and geophysics), you must have high attention to detail, and be good at investigating, solving problems and putting elements together within a larger strategic framework.
Toni Sefton, Junior Software Engineer at WORK180: You need to be able to learn quickly. Technology is such a fast paced industry – there is always a new language or framework, and it’s impossible to know everything. So you need the ability to think on your feet and pivot when needed.
What are some of the things that you’re currently working on?
Dakota Harkins from TransGrid: I’m currently working on wearable technology, like smart watches, to help manage the safety of remote and lone workers.
Dr Sue Keay, Research Director of Cyber-Physical Systems at CSIRO: My team are working on developing new sensors that can give us more information while operating with low or no power requirements. We’re also developing new robots (particularly robots with legs), taking advantage of recent advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning.
Nerida Airs, Manager Water Solutions at Unitywater: I’m exploring technical issues within the water and wastewater sector, such as emerging contaminants and water quality, as well as business and commercial opportunities for laboratory services.
Braveena Santhiranayagam from Liberty Financial: I’m working on understanding indicators of customer churn. By identifying customers who are highly likely to leave the business, we can come up with interventions to help make them stay.
Tarna Werndly from Evolution Mining: I’m reviewing the geological models and planned drilling designs to explore and expand the current mineral resources for one of our newly acquired assets.
What is the biggest challenge you face as a woman in STEMM?
Natasha Manley from Downer: I have found no real challenges as a female in STEMM. I was the only woman to graduate in my year, and I was always afforded every opportunity to support my learning and development throughout my studies. I’ve worked hard and created my own opportunities.
Mica Huynh from Redbubble: Learning to be comfortable with who you are. Society and the workplace can tell you through words or actions that you "should" be something to be successful. It’s knowing that there’s space for everyone and forging ahead with being yourself.
Bree Dorant, Data Visualisation Lead at Optus: Although it’s changing, there are still not a lot of female leaders in STEMM. Learning how to be an authentic female leader in STEMM can sometimes be difficult without those role models.
Toni Sefton from WORK180: My biggest challenge was how long it took me to realise that I could be a software engineer. I always loved programming and received top marks in it, but I couldn’t visualise it as a career option for me. It wasn’t until I saw women in tech posting about their work on Instagram that I began to realise I could do this.
Nicole Meaker from Cisco: Being the only woman in the room for much of my career. Although this is changing, as tech becomes more broadly adopted across industries and our daily lives. There are more women in the room now and it will only get better.
What are your future career goals?
Dr Sue Keay from CSIRO: My main goal is to increase awareness of the important role that cyber-physical systems play in our world, and to help build an ecosystem in Australia that allows the great talent and technologies that we develop to stay here.
Dakota Harkins from TransGrid: I want to be leading the introduction of technology that will help people in the future. What job that is, I don’t know. But I’m opening myself up to new opportunities and doing everything in my power to learn new things. In the past year, I taught myself new programming languages and machine learning algorithms, brushed up on my human-centered design principles and said yes to every challenge thrown my way.
Bree Dorant from Optus: I would like to lead teams dedicated to pushing the boundaries of data forward, exploring the application of new technologies and helping others develop their career.
What does being a woman in STEMM mean to you?
Emma Brand from Origin: It means being able to make a difference in the world and provide opportunities for as many other women who wish to change it with me.
Nerida Airs from Unitywater: It means I get to do what I’m passionate about. It also means I can demonstrate to my daughter that if she’s passionate about something then she should have a go, regardless of whether it’s considered a ‘traditional’ field or not.
Bree Dorant from Optus: It’s the best feeling being able to empower the women who walk this path after me, and support and learn from the women who have come before me. I’m privileged to have an established career in STEMM, and I want to help other women achieve the same.
What communities for women in STEMM are you part of and would recommend to others?
Brooke Hendrick from Calibre: I’m a member of Engineers Australia, and part of their volunteer committee that helps organise workshops and networking events. I recommend all studying engineers, no matter what field, get involved with EA.
Jenny Byers from TAL: I’m part of many communities in and outside of STEMM. Joining a community is a personal choice, so you need to find one that resonates with you.
Nicole Meaker from Cisco: I recommend mentoring programs, as a mentee or a mentor. Vic ICT for Women has MentorShe, of which I am a mentee.
Naomi Civins from Redbubble: I get so much out of reading other women’s experiences, so I spend a lot of time on Medium and LinkedIn. There are also local meetups like Ladies That UX, which are excellent for creating a safe space for discussion.
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