Supporting the next generation of female scientists

25 August 2020

As a high school teacher, Catherine Royans of the University of Adelaide noticed young girls were dropping out of STEM subjects. She wanted to find out why. In this profile, Royans shares her journey from evolutionary genetics researcher to STEM Women Changemaker.


Catherine RoyansCatherine Royans at the Catalysing Gender Equity Conference 2020

Catherine Royans, PhD candidate in the School of Education at the University of Adelaide, has spent years observing the many reasons why some young people turn away from science careers. After more than a decade of frustration watching girls drop out of science and mathematics subjects, Catherine says that “it looks to be a lot to do with the biases that we have in our everyday lives.”

Catherine commenced her PhD to find out more about the barriers that exist for girls in STEM. She is now the Program Coordinator for SWIFT (Strong Women in Future Technologies), where she equips girls and non-binary young people with the tools for a career in STEM. Through her work, research and public speaking, she is helping teachers and parents promote careers in technology to diverse groups of young students.

Early life and education

Catherine’s fascination with science started in early childhood with investigations of caterpillars and insects in her backyard. “I was really fascinated with nature,” Catherine says. “My family had a lot of pets, and my mum encouraged me to go outside and see what they were doing and investigate what they were up to.”

Catherine grew up fascinated with science books and documentaries – particularly seeing Jane Goodall living with gorillas and conducting investigations out in the field. She went on to pursue a degree in Genetics and Zoology at the University of Adelaide. She also completed an Honours year in Evolutionary Genetics, studying the evolution of the common dolphin. “I got a chance to actually combine my passions of genetics, which is just amazing. And then also be able to look at the zoological site and the dolphins themselves – at how different they are physically, and how that occurs at the same time as the molecular evolution,” Catherine says.

Though Catherine’s current research lies in the field of education rather than genetics now, she keeps up to date with genetics and proteomics by listening to podcasts from researchers all over the world.

Pursuing a career in STEM

Despite her passion for genetics, Catherine was initially put off pursuing a career in STEM after completing her Honours. “Any of the women that I had spoken to that were high up in the fields were unmarried and didn’t have children,” Catherine says. “The women who did have children tended not to be in those high positions. It scared me that I was not going to be able to have a family and children. So, it did push me away at that time where I did settle down and get married and stopped pursuing science for a number of years.”

On becoming a science educator and researching the diversity gaps in STEM

Catherine was still fascinated with anything science and realised that she not only had a passion for science itself, but for teaching. “While I may not go into science myself, I could certainly influence the next generation,” she says. Catherine went on to complete a Graduate Diploma in Education at the University of Adelaide, majoring in biology and junior science. Teaching gave her the opportunity to pass on her passion to her students. “I was always bouncing around the classroom and getting excited and getting completely distracted every time they asked me a question off topic,” she recalls.

But she found it disheartening that so many students dropped out of science subjects and didn’t pursue STEM further. After a decade of frustration, Catherine decided to go back to university and undertake a PhD to understand the root of the problem of why students drop out of STEM subjects.

Catherine is currently a year into her PhD. “I’ve been reading a lot of literature and there’s so many reasons why girls turn away from science and STEM careers,” she says. “Girls also have a fear of going into those careers because they’re seeing so many men already in there. We see an internalisation of the femininity that they feel within themselves does not match with the ‘masculine’ field.”

Catherine acknowledges the need for this topic to be investigated through the context of parental and teacher attitudes. She has found that parents, teachers, the school environment and even the social sphere surrounding the students all have a stronger influence than she initially realised.

“My father was a doctor.  My mother was a nurse, and then a social worker. My schooling encouraged me to be anything I wanted to be,” Catherine says. “I was very privileged in my schooling and the way that I was raised. There was never any question about being a scientist, or anything I wanted to be.  I really have found that that is not common. It frustrates me that it isn’t.”

On SWIFT and gender equity at the University of Adelaide

As the Program Coordinator for SWIFT, Catherine says that she and her team are working towards “piloting a program that can actually tackle the school social ecosystem”. She explains that rather than specific STEM subject expertise, the program takes a broader approach.

“We’re not teaching them coding. We’re working with the skills they already have – to build their self-efficacy, confidence, team working collaboration, skills, problem solving, and critical thinking,” says Catherine.

The SWIFT program has already seen results, with participants showing improved self-confidence and a new appreciation for STEM. “You can see their self-confidence improve throughout the day,” Catherine says.  Although SWIFT is currently on hold due to COVID-19, the program is discussed in the web series “Transcending the Gender Narrative” in an episode on YouTube channel Women in Technology, released on 9 July 2020.

Catherine and her colleagues at the University of Adelaide are additionally working on a program to explain to teachers and parents that STEM skills are vital for the careers of the future.  “It’s really important to push on these transferable skills so that our students have that ability to pivot through their careers,” says Catherine.

The University of Adelaide was awarded an Athena SWAN Institutional Bronze Award in February 2020 for its work in improving gender equity and diversity, which includes the successful Women in STEM Careers program; women-only recruitment programs in science and engineering; improved adoption and promotion of flexible work practices; and women’s leadership development programs.

Earlier this year. Catherine was announced by the Australian Academy of Science as a STEM Women Changemaker, a group of women who are using their knowledge, experience and networks to share their ideas and solutions for gender equity in Australian STEM.

“The Australian Government, Australian Academy of Science, and so many of the larger corporations around Australia are trying to encourage the girls to come into these fields,” says Catherine. “These girls will see all these opportunities in which their voices are desperate to be heard. The more diversity, the more successful the team.”