7 mins read 07 Sep 2023

It’s 2023, and it’s about time we Include Her

A recent study found that there is a clear bias in the gender representation of scientists in senior high school science curricula across Australia. Space Australia’s Dr Shanika Galaudage, a co-author of the study, comments on the key findings and talks about the IncludeHer movement.

Total number of male and female scientists named in senior high school science curricula across Australia. Credit: S. Galaudage / IncludeHer

Women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are underrepresented and there is increasing evidence showing that a sense of belonging is essential for students to continue to pursue careers related to STEM. Schools and school education play a huge role in the development of identity, motivation, self-esteem, and participation in STEM, and the lack of representation of any one group can impact participation rates in these fields of these groups. Our team, consisting of scientists and education experts, have published findings in the Australian Journal of Education indicating that there is an obvious underrepresentation of women in the Australian year 11/12 science curriculum. 

Our main finding? There were 145 scientists mentioned across the courses, and only one of them was female; Rosalind Franklin. Yes, even two-time Nobel prize winner Marie Curie, didn’t make the cut. This is additionally surprising since radioactivity is discussed in several of these courses.

As a woman in STEM, this was a particularly sobering statistic.

I completed all my education in Australia, and at every step, I have been lucky enough to have supportive mentors and some incredible role models. You learn a lot in hindsight, and while I didn’t realise it at the time, my high school physics teacher, a woman, had a huge impact on my motivation to pursue a career in physics. Sometimes, the career possibilities are just not obvious when there is a lack of role models. A statement as simple as “If you are interested in astrophysics, why don’t you just pursue it” set me on the course to where I am today. 

Undoubtedly, the visibility of female role models in science is vital for engaging and retaining women in scientific fields.  

Bias in the Australian science curriculum

A new study of the gender representation of scientists in senior high school science curricula was conducted by a team of researchers from various institutions across Australia. The team includes Dr Kathyrn Ross (Curtin University/ICRAR), Tegan Clark (Australian National University), Nataliea Lowson (University of Southern Queensland), Dr Andrew Battisti (Australian National University/Astro3D), Dr Helen Adam (Edith Cowan University), Dr Alexandra Ross (Australian Wildlife Conservancy), Dr Nici Sweaney (Australian National University) and myself (Monash University/OzGrav*). Truly a nationwide effort!

We analysed the Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Environmental Science curricula for year 11 and 12 students, and what we found was alarming and disappointing.

Looking at the number of different scientists mentioned across the curricula, the single female scientist mentioned was Rosalind Franklin, and she was only mentioned in the Queensland (QLD), South Australia (SA) and Northern Territory (NT) curricula. Note that the NT uses the same curriculum as SA.  

Percentage of men (light purple) and women (dark purple) named in STEM curricula for states and territories across Australia. Source: Ross et al. 2023

As part of this research, we also wanted to test in what context the names of scientists were mentioned. We broke the mentions down into two categories: concept and scientist. A ‘concept’ mention is where the name is mentioned because it is the name of a law/method/idea/etc. (e.g. Newton’s 3rd law). A ‘scientist’ mention is where the name is mentioned to reference the person (e.g. Issac Newton discovered …).

The Australian National Territory (ACT) and Victoria (VIC) took a ‘concept’ approach to their curricula, avoiding mentions of scientists as much as possible. For example, in the VIC Physics course, there is no mention of Faraday’s law (a law well known by that name), but instead, they reference what the law does, the law of induction. The other states and territories have about a quarter to a third of scientist mentions.  

Percentage of mentions of the science concepts (light blue) compared to mentions of the scientists (dark blue) in STEM curricula for states and territories across Australia. Source: Ross et al. 2023

Piecing these two slices of data together from these figures tells a story. The ‘concept-only’ approach really highlights how historically the recognition of women for their contributions to science was suppressed, and their research undervalued. However, without any explanation of the absence of women scientists, this approach implicitly supports the ‘lone-male genius’ narrative.

Unlike the ACT and VIC, the other states and territories choose to acknowledge scientists but have little to no mention of women - but we can all agree that if a curriculum is going to make ‘’scientist’ mentions, it should make the effort to highlight the contributions of female scientists. Some notable scientists that could easily fit into the current curricula include Nettie Stevens, Fiona Wood, Marie Curie, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, Maria Goeppert-Mayer, Eunice Foote, Marie Tharp, Emma Johnston, Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, Michelle Simmons and Lise Meitner.  

Percentage of scientists from each region/continent mentioned across curricula in Australia. Source: Ross et al. 2023.

We performed one more slice of the data. We wanted to see which parts of the world the scientists mentioned in the curricula are from. We find the curricula have a Eurocentric focus. In fact, not a single Australian scientist is mentioned. There is also a lack of diversity in ethnicities. However, we note that some curricula are making an effort to discuss some of these issues with modules focussing on science as a human endeavour and highlighting indigenous scientific contributions - a step in the right direction.

For some time, the science community has known that the ‘lone-male genius’ of European descent does not represent the overall diversity across the community, at all. This community, across many disciplines, is diverse, and much of the work involves collaboration. Our science curriculums in schools need to reflect that, which is one of the aims of this work we are undertaking, as part of the IncludeHer movement. 

The IncludeHer movement

The work for this study began back in 2018 when Dr Kathryn Ross saw a problem in the NSW Physics curriculum.  She found no mention of female scientists in the core part of the course. Seeing this problem, she started a campaign to raise awareness about this issue, inspiring others to join her fight to push for fair representation of scientists across the Australian education system, and thus began the IncludeHer movement.

Her campaign inspired many of us to push for change; I know I was. All I needed to see was one talk by Kat and I was in. Since 2020, this team and various other volunteers, combed through the science curricula across Australia to see if what Kat saw with NSW was a common issue. It was.  

It’s 2023, and it’s about time our science curricula represent the true community of scientists.  

We are steadily making progress, working with educators, and education departments to fix these issues. Our mission? To bring a diverse representation of scientists and role models into classrooms to inspire students to believe they can pursue careers in STEM and be leaders in the field. Find out more about the mission and activities at includeher.au


* I am currently a postdoc abroad at the Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur, but this research was completed and submitted while I was still a PhD student at Monash University/OzGrav.

The paper is now available in the Australian Journal of Education