International Day of Women and Girls in Science

“Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion: Water Unites Us"

As the 11th of February nears we take time to recognise and celebrate gender equality for the 7th International Day of Women and Girls in Science

7th International Day of Women and Girls in Science

"Science and gender equality are both vital for the achievement of the internationally agreed development goals, including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Over the past decades, the global community has made a lot of effort in inspiring and engaging women and girls in science. Yet women and girls continue to be excluded from participating fully in science.

In order to achieve full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls, and further achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, the United Nations General Assembly declared 11 February as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science in 2015.

Recognizing the role of women and girls in science, not only as beneficiaries, but also as agents of change, including in view of accelerating progress towards the achievement of SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation)the 7th International Day of Women and Girls in Science Assembly will focus on the following topic: “Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion: Water Unites Us". #February11 is celebrated globally in different ways, big and small" 

“Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion: Water Unites Us"

We spoke to three amazing researchers, at different stages of their career to understand how this day and this theme impacts the world around them. All three researchers worked together on a Global Challenges funded project investigating microplastic pollution in waterways. The study aims to isolate and identify indigenous microbial assemblages that could degrade the microplastics present in the water and sediments of Lake Illawarra. 

Meet researchers

Martina Sanderson-Smith (Associate Professor)

Illawarra Health & Medical Research Institute, Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health (SMAH) led the experiments on biodegradation of microplastics 

Ashley Ansari (Early Career Researcher)

Strategic Water Infrastructure Laboratory, School of Civil, Mining and Environmental (CME) Engineering, Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences (EIS) responsible for developing the method for microplastics analysis/quantification. 

Nuwanthi Punam Kristhombuge (Higher Degree by Research/HDR candidate)

School of CME and SMART,  Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences (EIS) conducted laboratory experiments on microplastics biodegradation. She will also present the findings of the project at a domestic conference.

The big questions

What are the barriers or hurdles for women and girls in science?

Martina: A lot has been published on the barriers facing women and girls in science, particularly as they progress further in their careers. Gender stereotypes, implicit bias and outdated career structures that don’t allow for flexibility, career breaks, or recognition and reward of collaboration and teamwork, are all key factors. For many women these barriers are compounded by issues such as racism, heterosexism and ableism. I think it is really important to recognise that removing these barriers and creating a workplace culture that is more inclusive and collaborative will benefit the whole workforce.

Ashley: Navigating a research/academic career while recently starting a family has been a hurdle for me. It’s extremely difficult to strike the right balance when this research field can be highly competitive. But I’m lucky to be a part of an inclusive and supportive research culture in my School and at UOW overall.

Nuwanthi: One of the main barriers for female researchers in STEM is managing family while carrying out professional work. Some face difficulties or even struggle to survive when working in male dominated industries. Also, in some cases, girls are not encouraged to do their (higher) studies in Science or other STEM fields (due to their family background).

Why is it important to have diversity within research teams?

Martina: For me research is all about solving new and complex problems, and gaining a deeper understanding of how the world works. Each person in a team brings their own skillset, unique way of thinking and approach to problem solving based on their life experience. If your team is made up of diverse individuals, then I think you are much better equipped to identify new and important problems, and come up with innovative and creative ways of solving them.

Ashley: I think it’s important to have diversity in research teams as you get the opportunity to experience new perspectives, and this gives you the chance to collaboratively develop better approaches. This always leads to better research outcomes, and you personally learn so much in the process.

Nuwanthi: Diversity of gender and social and ethnic backgrounds within a research group is crucial to ensure the development of diverse ideas. It is because those ideas come from their own life experiences. Therefore, a diverse group creates a great opportunity to generate a variety of creative and practical ideas. In addition to that a diverse group can also contribute to a successful collaboration. I appreciate the diversity and inclusion that I can experience in my research groups i.e., Strategic Water Infrastructure Lab (School of Civil, Mining and Environmental Engineering) and the SMART Infrastructure Facility.

The 7th International Day of Women and Girls in Science Assembly will focus on the following topic: “Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion: Water Unites Us” How do you think water unites us all?

Martina: Living on the coast water plays a really important role in bringing communities together for sport, recreation and relaxation, but water is essential for life, and billions of people lack access to clean, safe water sources for basic survival. Ensuring Universal access to safe clean water is something that we should all be concerned with.

Ashley: I think water unites us all because it is the most essential human need and because the world’s water crisis needs a united and holistic approach to achieving sustainable water solutions.

Nuwanthi: Water is used for everyday life irrespective of race, class and gender. However, equitable access to water should be provided for all members of the population, especially those who suffer a disadvantage. I believe, for the mitigation of the global water crisis and accelerating progress towards the achievement of SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), a balanced representation of men and women is vital in the process at all levels, and that’s how an united front can be built.

What does this day mean to you?

Martina: It provides an opportunity to celebrate the amazing Women in Science that I am lucky enough to be surrounded by, and to learn about areas of science and science careers that I am not exposed to every day.  For me it also serves as a reminder to listen to the experiences of others and  reflect on what I can do to support and encourage Women and girls in Science.

Ashley: For me this day is really special as it brings together two of my passions which are water research and promoting gender equity in science. It’s exciting to see women and girls in water celebrated and recognised as agents of change for achieving SDG6. This day is also a chance to reflect and inspire momentum for our own endeavours (i.e. as a member of the Women’s Research Engineers Network (WREN) – an initiative established by UOW researchers).

Nuwanthi: It is a day for women around the world to be acknowledged and recognized for their contributions to Science and to the society as a whole. I am proud to be a ‘girl in science’.

Did you have a role model when you were a girl/young woman in school?

Martina: My role models were the women in my family and community when I was growing up. These were women who worked hard, were often juggling work and caring for family and trying to give back to their community, volunteering and supporting those around them. They were teachers, nurses, cleaners, carers, mothers and aunts. Most of these amazing women will never receive awards and accolades, but they led by example, with strength, purpose and kindness.

Ashley: All the amazing and inspirational women in my family and community. But in terms of science/engineering role models, I didn’t personally know, or see many women in the media working in non-traditional fields. This highlights the representation issues that some young girls face when entering careers in science and engineering.

Nuwanthi: Yes, I am proud to say that it is my mother, who is a housewife and who did not have the opportunity to be involved in science studies, is my role model and the source of inspiration for my career as a researcher. I aspire to learn the life skills with which she dealt with all the stresses and hard times in her life.

To get in touch with Associate Professor Martina Sanderson-Smith

To get in touch with Dr Ashley Ansari

To find out more about the International Day of Women and Girls in Science

To find out more about the microplastic pollution in waterways project