Disabled women ‘undervalued’ as battle for equality in science careers intensifies

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Zia Westerman was interested in studying geoscience, but a lack of flexibility around field trips led her to pursue an arts degree instead.

“I always wanted to study this subject. I tried to research local universities, so that I could study on campus, she said.

“I tried to search online. I found something where you also had to go to study abroad… I didn’t want to do that at the time.”

Ms Westerman, who has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair, has found nothing in Australia to meet her needs.

Statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show that only a fraction of higher education students have a disability.

In 2022, people with disabilities made up just 6.3% of university enrollment in Australia, and only 1.2% had a profound disability. Of these, only a handful have studied science.

Disabled women ‘undervalued’

Geologist and lecturer Melanie Finch thinks the lack of inclusion in geoscience is an attitudinal issue rather than a lack of opportunity for scholars with disabilities.

Melanie Finch encourages women to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).(Provided)

“The general point of view [is] you can’t be a geoscientist because you can’t traverse rough terrain,” she said.

“That’s ridiculous. Hardly any geoscientist regularly traverses rough terrain.”

“People with disabilities can be underestimated or written off in a way because people don’t understand the extent of what people with disabilities are capable of,” Dr. Finch said.

Dr. Finch has become a pioneer in breaking down gender stereotypes about scientists and is a powerful role model for girls and women who want to pursue careers in male-dominated industries.

Melanie Finch holds her camera with rocks and the ocean in the background
Dr. Finch says there is plenty of room for women with disabilities in geoscience. (Provided)

Dr Finch is leading the way on several fronts, as a lecturer in geosciences at James Cook University and as chair of Women in Earth and Environmental Sciences in Australasia (WOMEESA), which is a network connecting women working in universities, industry and government.

‘Leaky pipeline’ sees women leaving the workforce

A research paper she co-authored found that nearly half of geoscience students were women, but the numbers start to drop as soon as they enter the workforce.

He found that this ‘leaky pipeline’ also extended to academia, as well as the mining industry in Australia, and that male university graduates had starting salaries around 6% higher than women in the geosciences.

Dr Finch said the reasons women left geoscience included unequal pay, sexual harassment and assault, and discrimination in the workplace.

She said sexual assault was the biggest reason women quit mining, but the issues were more subtle in academia.

“Number one for me would be unconscious bias or implicit bias against women,” Dr. Finch said.

“And they affect decisions about hiring and promotions. And also, they affect the culture of a workplace,” she explained.

Women with disabilities face intersectional bias because they belong to two different minority demographic groups.

Intersectionality refers to the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, gender and disability and how they can overlap to create disadvantage and discrimination.

Global studies have shown that women with disabilities are much less likely than men to be employed, educated or receive equal pay.

Colleagues should not assume “what is best”

Being a disabled scientist is tough, but Verity Normington has been a field geologist for years.

Dr. Normington has been affected by Crohn’s disease all his life.

Verity wears a purple blazer and a black shirt
Verity Normington didn’t let Crohn’s disease get in the way of her career as a geologist.(Provided)

She first noticed the symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease when she graduated from high school and it continued to impact her studies at university.

“That meant sometimes I had to go part-time, especially in college. I had some pretty serious surgeries,” she said.

“I took two separate semesters, which left me behind, so it took me about five years to complete my undergraduate studies.”

But the chronic illness did not prevent her from succeeding in her career.

Dr Normington has visited some of the most remote landscapes in central Australia, but she says her colleagues sometimes think they know what’s best for her without asking.

“Everyone said, ‘oh, we’re just gonna let Verity rest and recover’…but they never really asked me what I wanted to do,” she said.

“When people said, ‘Verity, you shouldn’t be doing this because of illness,’ it’s coming from the best place, but it’s not really coming from an informed place.”

A culture of discrimination

Geologist Caroline Tiddy, who co-authored the research paper with Dr Finch, said part of the problem was that geoscience suffered from an ingrained culture that discriminated against difference.

Caroline pictured on the coast wearing a pink top and her short, curly hair
Caroline Tiddy said attitudes in the science professions had not evolved in line with those in the wider community.(Provided)

“Geoscience is such a male-dominated environment… people don’t always know what to do with a woman in the room,” Dr Tiddy said.

“A lot of those cultures haven’t changed with this shift in societal thinking. And I think that creates barriers for women in geoscience.”

The issue of intersectionality makes science difficult for many minorities.

A geologist, who did not want to be named, said being a woman of color was more disadvantageous than if she had been a man and was part of a racial minority.

“I think there would still be some sort of racial discrimination, but it makes it worse because of the gender and the color of my skin…I have absolutely no doubts about that.

“The question of intersectionality [is] the more boxes you tick… woman… differently disabled… it gets harder and harder really,” she said.

Less “respect” for certain disabilities

Intersectionality is more complicated for Amber Boyatzis, a female biochemist with Crohn’s disease and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Dr Boyatzis said there was less respect for behavioral disorders like ADHD than for strictly physical conditions like Crohn’s disease.

Even though both conditions had affected his academic career, Dr. Boyatzis still hasn’t disclosed his ADHD to his colleagues.

“Thinking about my Crohn’s disease and my ADHD and how they’re viewed differently, Crohn’s disease is definitely seen as something that I have no control over,” she said.

“There is a bit of pity and so people are quite understanding.

“There’s like a really big misunderstanding about what ADHD looks like, what it is, what helps people.

“When I hinted there a bit, people are skeptical that maybe I don’t have ADHD, maybe I’m just trying to set myself too high a standard…and that doesn’t bother me. didn’t fill with confidence.”

The advantage of “male privilege”

Richard Hill is an exploration field geologist who thinks “male privilege” and his “invisible” disability worked in his favor.

Richard wears a helmet, safety glasses and high visibility on an exploration site
Richard Hill thinks his gender has helped him in a “male-dominated” profession.(Provided)

Dr. Hill has ADHD and struggled in college. He usually doesn’t tell people about his condition because he is not well understood.

“I’ve worked for many different companies all over Australia as an entrepreneur. Being neuro-atypical, I’m not so successful in systems,” he said.

Although ADHD has impacted Dr. Hill’s studies, he believes his career has been successful because his disability is not visible and his field is male-dominated.

“Exploration is kind of a boys club,” he said.

“If a geologist, whether male or female, is good at his job, then everyone is happy with him.

“But while they may not be spectacular in their work, men still find it fairly easy to get work…whereas a geologist…might be judged a bit more harshly. A man in a similar position might find himself get away with a little more.”

Even though the glass ceiling in the scientific professions is starting to lift for women, there is still a long way to go to achieve equality and inclusion for women with disabilities.

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