Breaking barriers: Why the traditional image of a female STEM professional needs to be redefined

When most people think of a woman in STEM, they probably picture someone with a PhD working in a lab coat. While that is certainly one type of woman in STEM, it is far from the only one. In fact, there are countless women in STEM who are doing amazing work in a wide variety of fields, but their contributions often go unrecognised because they don’t fit the narrow definition of what a woman in STEM “should” look like.

For example, consider the woman who works as a software engineer, writing code that powers the websites and apps we use every day. Or the woman who designs and builds robots that can explore other planets. Or the woman who uses data analysis to help fight climate change. These women are all making significant contributions to their fields, but they may not have PhDs, and there is no sign of a lab coat in their wardrobe.

As the CEO of gemaker, I am not a PhD, I am not in a lab and I do not work for a research organisation. Instead, I do the important work of commercialising STEM-based technology, taking Aussie tech to the world. Using my STEM background and training, I give researchers and innovators the advice and training to commercialise new knowledge and tech so these crucial inventions reach a wide audience.

Some of the inventions we’ve supported include high-tech shrink wrap for storm-damaged roofs, satellite laser beams for super-fast data to digital tourniquets building bigger muscles, drones that protect wildlife from bushfires and bionic ears made by 3D printing and the development of new personalised medical treatments.

If it wasn’t for marketing and commercialisation, these ideas just wouldn’t see the light of day.

But am I still considered a woman in STEM? Not always – and there are many reasons why this is wrong. 

I am very much a woman in STEM; not only because I hold a chemistry degree. But, without anyone to develop the pathways to market for the incredible inventions created by people in STEM, nobody knows that these inventions exist.

If you don’t have commercialisation experts in STEM who can market inventions to the right people at the right time, all you have is an awesome, revolutionary idea that nobody has heard of or how to use. If no one is buying your idea, and no one is using it – then it’s nothing but a great idea.

We need a more inclusive interpretation of what it means to be a woman in STEM because it will help us to better recognise and appreciate the contributions of all people who work in these fields.

If you’re enabling STEM in a STEM sector regardless of your qualifications – or if you have a STEM background and you’re using those skills in a non-STEM role/sector you are a woman in STEM.

It is time for people to really flip their perception of what a woman in STEM looks like. When we limit our understanding of who belongs in STEM, we miss out on the valuable insights and perspectives of a diverse range of people.

Even better; by broadening the definition of a woman in STEM we can help to inspire and encourage more girls and young women to pursue careers in these fields. When we show them that there are many different paths to success in STEM, and that they don’t have to fit a certain mould to be successful, we can help to break down the barriers that have traditionally kept women and other underrepresented groups out of these fields. So, as we continue to think about International Women’s Day, let’s celebrate all the amazing women in STEM, regardless of their educational background, job title, or wardrobe choices. Let’s recognise the incredible contributions they are making to their fields, and let’s work to ensure that all women have equal opportunities to pursue careers in STEM. Together, we can help to create a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable STEM community where everyone has the chance to thrive and succeed.

Thank you to the Women in STEMM board and the Science and Technology Australia (STA) Superstars of STEM program who’ve embraced me as part of the broadening of the definition of Women in STEM.