By Guest Author 09/10/2018

Emma Timewell

Diversity in science is what makes it truly innovative – and although one scholarship won’t fix it, it’s a step towards a more inclusive sector.

This week, the Association for Women in the Sciences (AWIS) is attempting to raise $30,000 for its Women in STEM scholarship.

The first AWIS Women in STEM Award scholarship, administered by the New Horizons for Women Trust, was awarded earlier this year to three women studying medical imaging, computer science and marine biology. The initial funds for the scholarship were raised through screenings of the 2017 movie Hidden Figures – which centred around female mathematicians involved in the NASA space programme – with the aim of encouraging women to study STEM subjects at tertiary level, particularly those whose social identify is under-represented in their field of study.

With a $30,000 boost, the scholarship remains viable until 2022, a hugely satisfying achievement for everyone involved. It will also be a massive weight off the shoulders of the Executive Committee, who all volunteer their time to AWIS activities and will be able to focus their efforts on other projects knowing that the scholarship fund is in good shape (for a while at least).

Why do we need this scholarship, you may ask. The reality is that, in some areas of science, diversity is still lacking. In IT subjects, women account for about 17% of Bachelor’s degrees awarded; in Engineering, it’s around 12%. Participation of female students who are Māori, Pacific or differently-abled is even less.

This is a fundamental problem for New Zealand. That diversity that comes from different experiences, viewpoints and ideals is needed to ensure our science is truly innovative.

AWIS was formed in 1985. In the 30+ years since then, some things have changed for women in science, but some haven’t. Certain things we have to live with – unfortunately, we can never make men have babies! But things have changed and continue to change for women. Women no longer have to choose between career and family as they once did. New initiatives ensure that workplaces are more geared towards an appreciation of family life, and there are many discussions around ensuring a break in career does not impact on research funding. These initiatives not only impact women but also encourage men to take a more active part in their family than ever before.

However, the inherent lack of women in science in the past has left us with few role models to inspire and enthuse young women in becoming scientists themselves. To create these role models, we need more women in science, particularly in under-represented areas. If students can see themselves reflected in these role models, they will feel that they can enter and excel in a science career.

A single scholarship is not the definitive answer to solving this problem. But every small action we take to encourage young women into science is a step in the right direction.

So this week, show your support for women in science by getting behind the AWIS fundraising efforts. You can enter a quiz team into the National Quiz on Thursday and pit yourself against teams from across the country vying for the title of National Champion; bid on some exclusive experiences on TradeMe; or donate via the Givealittle page.

AWIS wishes to thank the University of Otago, the National Quiz sponsor, and regional quiz sponsors the Cawthron Institute and the Dodd-Walls Centre; our TradeMe auction providers Michelle Dickinson, Siouxsie Wiles, Ruud Kleinpaste, Jack Tame, NIWA and Plant & Food Research; and all our silent auction sponsors. Not forgetting everyone else who has contributed time, effort and money to the success of our fundraising efforts. Personally, I would like to thank all the amazing women on the AWIS Executive Committee, who have made my ambitious fundraising vision a reality!

Emma Timewell is National Convenor of the Association for Women in the Sciences, Communications Manager for Plant & Food Research, and an executive member of the Science Communicators’ Association of New Zealand. The views expressed in this blog are personal.