The number of women in Australia currently working in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) industries is just 16 per cent. The reasons for this are manifold, but there is a strong link to a lack of societal encouragement for girls to develop skills in these fields.
When young girls are not, for example, encouraged to perform well in math, or to build a robot, or are ridiculed for ‘acting like a boy’ because of their participation or interest in STEM-based activities, this leads to the current low rate of women professionals in STEM and centres male-thought and design that can have dangerous results.
Emily Gentilini, Co-Founder of Fifty50 and Graduate Engineer at Arup, says that “STEM could benefit by having more of many kinds of people! We need to bring together diverse experiences, demographics and ways of thinking if we’re going to provide the best solutions to complex problems. Gender is an important example of that diversity.”
Founded in 2015, Fifty50 is a student-led organisation based at the Australian National University that is dedicated to achieving gender equity in STEM at the university level. It runs regular programs and events, creates content and develops initiatives aimed at empowering students to thrive.
On founding Fifty50, Ms Gentilini says that it was motivated not only through wanting to increase gender diversity in STEM, but to also create a support environment for non-traditional STEM students seeking to pursue a career in these industries after university.
“My Co-founder, Dr Francesca Maclean, and I had very different experiences in our time at university. Francesca moved from Darwin, and had to work hard to build networks and break down barriers. Her experience aligned in many ways with the experience of women in STEM that you read about.
“We wanted to create an environment where it wasn’t just through luck that you had the right support, empowerment and encouragement in place. We wanted all students to have the opportunity to have the inclusive experience I did!”
Beyond working on Fifty50 to tackle gender inequality in STEM, Ms Gentilini is also a Graduate Engineer at Arup. “Arup have a variety of disciplines from engineering to economics, working across renewable energy projects, water and transport – including Light Rail – all of which I am passionate about, particularly when I can integrate frameworks like the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into the work we are doing.
“I am also really enjoying the internal research projects I’ve been working on this year, where I’ve been able to answer questions such as ‘how do we make our solar industry more compatible with the circular economy?’. In terms of what’s next, I am just working to one-year plans, and although I’m quite agnostic to what kind of work I’d like to do and where, I’m currently identifying themes that interest me, such as the circular economy.
Developing an interest in the circular economy makes sense for Ms Gentilini, given her skills as an engineer and her passion for the SDGs. This alternative economy aims to make sustainable resources and keep them in use as long as possible, extracting their maximum reuse value, before eventually disposing of them if they cannot be recycled.
Such an economy is an exciting idea, particularly given the future economic and environmental issues we face. The diversity of thought Ms Gentilini is contributing is both a marker of her continued persistence to increase gender equality in STEM through Fifty50, and evidence that diversity is systematically working to improve society for us all.
“By changing our existing structures and ways of working to allow for this, we can make more sustainable changes that bring everyone along for the ride.
“Bringing everyone along for the ride holds a challenge ahead though; convincing people that things like the SDGs are relevant to what they do, or that gender equality is relevant to everyone can be difficult. I hope that as time goes on, we can get more people involved in diversity and inclusion focused initiatives, and engage with ideas like the circular economy or planetary boundaries.”
Jessica Abramovic is a communications specialist living in Canberra. Her academic and career focuses are diversity and inclusion, intersectionality, and storytelling. Jessica holds a BA majoring in communications and international studies, a Grad Dip of Professional Writing, a Master of International Development, and is currently completing a Master of Communication.