Breaking stereotypes and boosting diversity in STEM

Profiling Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith and her role as Australia’s first Women in STEM Ambassador

Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith, presenting Stargazine Live on ABC TV

Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith presenting on ABC TV’s Stargazing Live in 2017.

Getting young girls interested in STEM and STEM careers, as well as engaging, retaining and increasing women in STEM roles at all levels, is an extremely hot topic right now … and rightly so.

If Australia wants to be an innovative and competitive nation moving forward, diversity in STEM is the key as many future jobs will require STEM skills.

Towards the end of last year, the Federal Government announced that Astrophysicist Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith would be Australia’s first Ambassador for Women in STEM.

So what does a Women in STEM Ambassador do?

Raising awareness nationally

Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith said the role is important because it works on a national scale to raise awareness of issues that create roadblocks to girls studying STEM in school at advance levels and progressing into STEM jobs and careers.

“Once women are in science, they’re driven out by bad workplace culture and a lack of work flexibility, particularly around the time when they may have caring responsibility.

“There are many different issues, but really I’m trying to accelerate the cultural change that’s already underway in this country,” said Professor Harvey-Smith.

In particular, she wants to tackle some of the stereotypes that form from a young age and, this year, she is focusing on early learning facilities.

Exciting, fun, world-changing careers

“We want young people to understand that STEM is for girls and boys, and it can lead to amazing, exciting, fun, world-changing careers.

“I really want to go to primary schools and drive this message home, and work with education departments across the country to help young people make the most of their education,” she said.

In her new role – which will run for two years – she has learnt that the education system in Australia is very complex.

“Targeting young children is really a good way to make change – before they start forming stereotypes and before they start making decisions about their future study.

“Talking to 14-year-olds is actually too late – they’ve already formed a lot of those opinions,” she said.

Building confidence, boosting understanding

Although girls actually outperform boys in many maths and science tests, they have a lower opinion of their ability to do those subjects.

“It’s really about breaking stereotypes, building confidence and boosting the understanding of young women about what STEM really means,” she said.

Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith inspiring kids with astronomy in Singapore

Helping to inspire kids with astronomy at an event at the Australian High Commission in Singapore, 2018.

Professor Harvey-Smith got interested in and inspired by science when she was young via some amazing science communicators and educators that she grew up with in the UK. She was inspired and influenced by both books and television programs.

“On the BBC there was a program called Tomorrow’s World. It imagined the world of the future, but it wasn’t all silver foil, monorails and hovercrafts! It explored how the world can change with technology – that was so inspiring,” she said.

Using her creativity rather than teaching

She always had this passion to teach but didn’t want to be a teacher like her mother, because she thought it was a very difficult profession.

“I have the greatest respect for teachers in schools, but I knew it wasn’t for me.

“I wanted to use my creativity rather than teach in a confined setting – that’s what I love about science communication, the creative aspect.

“The challenge of breaking out of my science niche and cutting through the jargon and explaining these cool concepts. I find it challenging and engaging and I love watching people’s faces as the penny drops,” she said.

Not many people have the skill to draw an entire room full of everyday Australians – scientists, science-enthusiasts and the science-illiterate alike – to a two-hour talk on complex astrophysics.

Award-winning astrophysicist

Professor Harvey-Smith did this in theatres around Australia for the launch of her book When Galaxies Collide – managing to keep audiences on the edge of their seats from start to finish, with vivid metaphors and humorous anecdotes of day-to-day life as an award-winning astrophysicist.

This ability to capture and communicate the universe with such vibrancy is among many reasons why she was named as Australia’s first Women in STEM Ambassador.

In her two-year appointment, she will focus on accelerating the cultural and systematic changes already underway in Australia to keep women in the STEM workforce.

And in her role as a Professor of Astrophysics, what does she wish more people knew about her field of study?

A passion for diversity in STEM

“I wish people realized Astrophysics can be done by anyone. We have so many citizen science projects where anyone can take part.

“You can go online and look up Galaxy Zoo, or Citizen Science and you can take part in classifying galaxies, look at how the sky is changing and discover supernovas and star explosions.

“And the findings will be used in real research, so I wish people would get involved. It’s really exciting and a great opportunity to be a real scientist in your own home,” she said.

Astrophysics, real research, inspired by science and science communication, and a real passion for diversity in STEM in Australia … just the sort of woman you need to be Australia’s first Women in STEM Ambassador. Go Lisa!


This article draws upon one written by Bianca Le for Applied magazine, but has been reworked and edited for SAGE.