The Research Files Episode 87: Where are the female scientists in high school curricula?

This podcast from Teacher is supported by MacKillop Seasons, whose Seasons for Life project supports schools with loss and grief following a suicide and other loss event.

Hello and welcome to Episode 87 of The Research Files from Teacher magazine – I’m Jo Earp. Have a guess at these 2 questions first of all: How many scientists are mentioned in high school science curricula here in Australia? How many of those do you think are women? After discovering that Marie Curie wasn’t even mentioned in the radioactivity section of one state Physics syllabus, astrophysicist Dr Kathryn Ross set out to explore if the contributions of other women were being overlooked. The fact that the research team found a gender bias probably won’t surprise you, but the extent of it will. Kat, who is an Associate Lecturer and Science Communicator at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) at Curtin University, joins me to share the shocking findings and implications, and what can be done to improve the situation.

If you’re a teacher looking for ideas of who you could be including, we’ll also run through a very short starter list of 11 female scientists. And you’ll hear about #IncludeHer – Kat founded the movement and is now heading a team to develop an in-school program to work with teachers to help them adapt their current lesson plans, with the aim to also create free resources for educators to use in the classroom. This is definitely one of my favourite podcast interviews of all time and, as always, there’s a lot to talk about – so let’s get started.

Jo Earp: Hi Kat, thanks for joining us at Teacher. Now you're the lead researcher on this project, and the team has recently published a paper in the Australian Journal of Education on the findings. So, before we start actually, I thought it would be good to give your co-authors on that paper a shout out too. So, we've got Shanika Galaudage, Tegan Clark, Nataliea Lowson, Andrew Battisti, Helen Adam, Alexandra K Ross and Nici Sweaney. OK, then, so this research involved analysis of 4 senior secondary science courses – so you did have a look at Biology, Chemistry, Environmental Science and Physics – that was across all 8 states and territories in Australia. And one note there, the Northern Territory follows the same curriculum as South Australia, so the analysis for that was combined. You looked specifically at mentions of male and female scientists, and then also the context of that, within the syllabuses to see if there was a gender bias. Now, I want to start with the headline findings from this study and then actually backtrack a little bit [to talk] about the representation of females in STEM studies and careers. And then we'll dig a little bit deeper into the findings in the data there, and then also the implications of what you found. So, first of all, what were the key findings from your study?

Kathryn Ross: So yeah, as you mentioned, we were looking to see if there was a gender bias present. So, we were just counting the number of scientists that were mentioned and who was mentioned as well. And what we found across all of the states and territories in Australia – there are 145 unique scientists that are mentioned; and of those 145 scientists, just one is a woman, and that's Rosalind Franklin. And she's only mentioned in Queensland and the combined South Australia/Northern Territory syllabuses. So, there's only one woman in all of Australia, and she's also not included in the majority of states and territories in Australia, which is a pretty disheartening result to see.

JE: Hmm, I'm actually just going to let that sink in a while for listeners. To clarify, then, how did you do the data collection? So, you were looking for explicit mentions, and then you actually classified these into one of 2 groupings as well, didn't you?

KR: That's it, yeah. We wanted to look and see if these mentions were specifically related to the scientist, or are they sort of implicit mentions because something’s named after a scientist – so, for example, referring to Newton's laws is not really referencing Newton the scientist themselves, but the laws and the work that was named after him. So, we classified the mentions into 2 categories, either a concept mention – where it is that law or a discovery that was named after a person – as well as a scientist mentioned where the scientist is the subject or it's a completely additional unnecessary mention of a scientist. And we found that, still, for the majority of states and territories, there's a lot of mentions of the scientists themselves. So, we're still learning very much of the narrative of the scientist attached to the science.

There are some states and territories, in particular the ACT, which had zero mentions of scientists. They really took a very concept approach and the only mentions of scientists were sort of unavoidable; these mentions where they're actually referring to the content and the science that happens to be named after men. But regardless of the way that we're mentioning these scientists, it is almost exclusively men that are being referred to.

JE: So whichever grouping you look at it, it's not good.

KR: Exactly.

JE: So, I think the overall finding then of gender bias – look, I didn't find it surprising myself, the overall finding, and I don't think most listeners will find it surprising. But the extent of that is absolutely remarkable. And, as I say, the findings of this study have been published in the Australian Journal of Education, as with all the research papers that we cover on the podcast, I'll put a link to that in the transcript of this over at And we do recommend you looking at the full paper. You'll see in there, Figure 2 in particular – that's quite stunning. I'll explain it to listeners. You've got … you've used these donut charts, with the percentage of men and women named in STEM curricula for the states and territories; you've got men in the light shade, women in the dark shade; men in a nice shade of pink there, and there are just 2 really thin slivers on the Queensland and the NT/South Australia (as we mentioned, those combined) on those areas, the rest it's just one colour for men. Were yourselves as researchers then, were you surprised by just how bad the situation is?

KR: I think yes and no. Part of the reason we even started doing this study is because the majority of us went through this system. We went through education in Australia, we studied this high school curriculum and we're all now working as researchers or studying doing our PhD's in science-related fields. So, I think it wasn't a surprise because we're all familiar with it, we all went through it. But just the extent to which it is so clearly biased, I think was what was shocking.

In particular, the fact that Marie Curie isn't mentioned, despite the fact that every single state covers radioactivity, and she even coined the term ‘radioactive’. But she's not mentioned once anywhere in Australia. I think stats like that is what's really shocking to me, that it doesn't matter how remarkable the women are or how remarkable the work is, it's still underappreciated, it’s still under celebrated and it's not being taught to the same extent that men are being taught.

So, I think the stats themselves weren't necessarily shocking, but the extent to which it's happening and also the way that most people just didn't seem to even realise this was a problem, I think that's what's really shocking. That it's just a pervasive, unconscious bias that we have of science as done by men, science as only ever been done by men, and women have played no role and continue to have no role in science – and that is just fundamentally incorrect. So, we're teaching this inaccurate view of science.

I think the view that a lot of people that are either teachers or the curriculum developers, the students, everyone involved in science education, that there was such a pervasive narrative that this was true, and that people were not really aware of this gender bias, I think that was what was more shocking to us as researchers.

JE: And people can't see on the podcast, but I'm throwing my arms up with the mention of Marie Curie there, and at various points in this podcast I'll be throwing my arms up as well. And there are those studies aren’t there, where they speak to kids, really young kids, and say, ‘draw a scientist’ and they'll invariably draw a man. So, yeah, it starts at a very young age as well. I just want to highlight the New South Wales courses, so in the paper, this is a quote from the paper. ‘Investigating Science also mentions 2 female cartoon characters, namely Edna Krabappel and Maggie Simpson. Thus, students enrolled in Investigating Science are exposed to more examples of female cartoon characters than female scientists.’

KR: Yes, it kind of speaks for itself. That's a really disheartening stat. I think when we came across that it was just mind boggling. So, in Investigating Science Marie Curie is mentioned, she's mentioned and she has a dot point with Henri Becquerel. But then there are the 2 mentions of cartoon characters, and they're actually only mentioned because a male scientist was publishing using them as a pseudonym to publish pseudoscience. It was a commentary on the fact that, you know, these predatory journals, you can just kind of publish whatever you want, and so they were putting these clearly fake characters in there as authors to see if that would still pass through. So, the context that even these cartoon characters are being mentioned is still associated with men. It's still the man that is doing the science, but still the only representation that you're really getting is a cartoon character.

It's just so stark that we have this view we’re teaching our students that if you're a young girl and you're interested in science or you want a career in science that ends for you at high school, you have no future in science beyond high school; that's what we're telling them with this curriculum, and it's just so heartbreaking to see it in just such clear statistics.

JE: And erasing all those contributions, as you say in the paper, erasing all those contributions of women throughout history – and we'll talk about that a little bit later and we'll take a closer look at results for each course as well in a moment. But I do want to have a think about the context that this is taking place in then, and you mentioned there about careers. What do we know about, firstly, the representation of women in STEM studies and careers?

KR: There's been a huge amount of research, particularly recently coming from the Women in STEM Ambassador's office, and they're looking at the representation of women in STEM careers at all different ages; so, right through from primary school up to professor levels and working in industry as well. And what we see is that women are definitely underrepresented in STEM fields at all stages, but particularly these really high-end professor or CEO levels in industry. So, women are very much represented in undergraduate courses. We're seeing an increase in the number of women that are enrolling in STEM courses – it's very slow, but it is increasing – but then beyond that, we start to see women plummet in the percentages of women working in these STEM fields, whether at academic institutes like universities or in industry in STEM-related fields.

So, there's definitely an underrepresentation of women in these STEM fields, but the percentages of that is about 30% of women in STEM workforces. So, even if you're randomly sampling women or scientists to include in the curriculum, we should be expecting at least 30% of representation of women. So, even though there's an underrepresentation, that's not really reflected to the same degree in the curriculum.

And we're well aware of these issues. We know that women are disengaging from STEM from quite a young age, particularly from what we consider these ‘hard’ (and I’m putting that in bunny quotes) sciences, like physics and mathematics and IT. So, we know that women are disengaging from that at really quite young ages, and that's definitely a real problem that we need to face. But we're working to address that in many, many different ways – but not apparently in the curriculum. So, yes, there is definitely a lack of representation of women in these STEM fields, but it's slowly improving, just not nearly as fast as it should be, I think.

JE: And you were saying there, even if we set a really low bar of that 30%, still not meeting that, just a reminder that you know just those two areas, Queensland and NT/SA, they were about 1.4 percent 1.5% I think and the rest were zero. So, we are so far off even the lowest bar. And, alongside that, then, what do we know about the importance of female role models in these fields?

KR: Yeah, this is becoming more and more evident, that role models are really important. So, there's an overwhelming amount of research about how we can get students to engage and participate with STEM, and the evidence is sort of leaning towards this sense of belonging as being the most crucial thing for students to feel like they can pursue a career in STEM. And to have this sense of belonging, there needs to be authentic and relatable role models for students at every stage, not just, you know, a Nobel Prize winner, which, let's face it, if you're just a high school student, that's not very relatable; you may have aspirations, but it's very hard to see the steppingstones from high school to a Nobel Prize. So, we need examples of role models that students can relate to at each stage.

Now, for a lot of women, gender diverse people, people of colour, anyone who isn't this sort of ‘lone white male genius’ person, you don't really have those examples; you really don't have access to them at any stage. So, these role models are really, really important for people to be able to picture themselves at every stage towards a STEM career and be able to see themselves pursuing that. And most importantly, they do need to be relatable, they need to be authentic. So, these tokenistic mentions or just random name drops is not actually going to help this situation. We need to have enough representation that all students can find someone that they can actually relate to and aspire to in STEM.

JE: And that old saying of ‘you can't be what you can't see’. So, let's dig down into each of the subject areas then, how did they compare? I mean, I guess some will be mentioning scientists or the concepts more frequently than others, yeah.

KR: Yeah, absolutely. So, we saw a trend across all the states and territories that Physics is consistently the subject that includes the most references of scientists. This is both the scientists and actually the concept mentions, which is quite understandable, I guess – in Physics there’s quite a history of naming these concepts after men. But what we find also consistently is that Environmental Science has the lowest mentions of scientists, and I find this particularly interesting, the comparison between Environmental Science and Physics, just that complete dichotomy, that absolute juxtaposition.

Because Physics is traditionally seen as this male endeavour. This very classic Physics, classic science, you know, very rigorous and mathematical. And it's got all these very typically male traits associated with it (whether or not those are valid is a very separate discussion, I think. I could definitely rant about that for a long time being a physicist myself), but that's interesting that this very male dominated subject is the one that has consistently the most number of mentions. Whereas Environmental Science is quite a modern science, we see it really taking off in recent decades, and women have been pioneers in this field since the beginning. So, for example, Eunice Foote was the one who discovered and proposed that CO2 in the atmosphere would have a really heating effect. That's obviously very relevant to today as we're battling the climate crisis, but consistently Environmental Science has the least number of mentions, if any at all.

And I think that that shows that narrative that we really value, and we put on a pedestal, these ‘lone white male geniuses’ that we see very common in the Eurocentric narrative and the Enlightenment era in Physics. But Environmental Science, being that more modern and more female dominated, and female pioneers being involved in Environmental Science. Having that historical context for those 2 subjects and seeing that come out in the way that we're talking about the scientists, that there's just no mention or appreciation of the women that have been pioneers in Environmental Science in the same way that it's being done in Physics.

So, I think the way that we're including scientists per subjects also speaks to the way that we perceive these masculine and feminine science subjects as well. And Biology also considered quite a ‘feminine science’ (again, whether that's justified and a valid perception is a different discussion), but they also have the fewest mentions close to Environmental Science. We see very few mentions in Biology across all states and territories as well. So, I think it's pretty clear what we appreciate and what we consider worthwhile teaching in the way that we're talking about scientists in these subjects.

JE: So, who are the … there's different exposure there then, according to which course you’re on. Who are the scientists then, who are the male scientists that are getting all the focus? Is it, you know, we mentioned the Newtons, the Einsteins? You know, who are the ones that are getting into the kids’ heads the most?

KR: Yeah, that's it. You've nailed it there already. It's Newton. It's Einstein. It's Maxwell. They're the ones that are predominantly getting the vast majority of mentions. I think there was even just one module in a Queensland Physics course that mentioned Einstein dozens of times, and a lot of them are these concept mentions of ‘Einstein's theory of …’ such and such, but we're also at the stage where I think we can just be talking about relativity, you know, the theory of relativity. Do we need to be attaching Einstein's name to it? And Einstein, then, because he's mentioned so frequently, because he is just seen as this pinnacle of what a scientist should be – the crazy white hair, the, you know, old white man; that classic narrative of a genius who made these major discoveries that just propelled science further, you know, into the future – that narrative is just untouchable. It means that Einstein is just this perfect representation of what we want a scientist to be.

But it's also incredibly inaccurate. Einstein did not work alone. Einstein had the work of his wife, who did a lot of the mathematics, who received next to no credit for that work, but also the collaboration and discussion of other scientists in his time. Einstein didn't work alone. He wasn't this ‘lone male genius’ but he's untouchable because of the narrative that's associated with him and the way that we teach him. So, the vast majority of mentions were definitely Einstein, Newton, Maxwell. They covered most of these mentions, but we also see pretty much all the other mentions coming from that Enlightenment period in Europe and a very European focus as well. So, pretty much exactly who you're thinking of when you think of a stereotypical example of a scientist, are the people we’re teaching of.

JE: And that's the next thing I want to switch onto, because you looked at, alongside gender, then you looked at the possibility of this Eurocentric focus. And no surprises there, the spoiler there – yes there was. So, the curricula talk about, firstly, a ‘diverse range of scientists’ working in ‘a global community of practice’ and the prioritising of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, of course. What did you find then?

KR: So, yes, pretty much every course would say that they should be teaching of this diverse nature of science and the collaboration nature of science, and that it's a global effort. And then over 75% of the mentions came from Europe. So that's not really demonstrating diversity in science. And I think also most shockingly, there was not a single Australian that was mentioned anywhere in any course across Australia, not one Australian. That is heartbreaking, because there's some incredible sciences that's going on in Australia, particularly in my own field. I'm a radio astronomer and Australia was one of the pioneers globally in that field. We really established that field as a powerhouse in the world. So, to have zero mentions of Australians is definitely an oversight.

But, as you mentioned, there's always a mention of including Aboriginal Science and Indigenous knowledge, and that's not really then represented in the actual dot points. It's sort of mentioned at the beginning in the preamble saying ‘make sure you include this’, but there's no real direction for teachers. There's no real instruction of how to do that, or what knowledge is to be included. And I think that just means that it's not being included, because it's too hard without that direction, without that instruction being clear. So, it's encouraged, but not really reflected in the curriculum itself.

So, there’s lots to think about already, and we’ll be back with more discussion after this quick message from our sponsor.

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JE: I want to read one more quote from your AJE paper, and it goes back to this thing you were saying about ‘lone male genius’. ‘In the vast majority cases, students are only exposed to scientists via relevant discoveries being named after the scientist who discovered them historically. Such naming conventions only provided recognition to male scientists, as female scientists were excluded from formal recognition at institutes and often had their work miscredited to male colleagues. Consequently, without significant contextual introduction, many students are implicitly being taught that only male scientists have made discoveries of note and that only male scientists are formally recognised for their work. Students are thus almost exclusively being taught scientific concepts through the narrative of the “lone male genius”.’ So, if it's not been explicitly stated and supported in the course outlines, then there is a responsibility (and a heavy responsibility there) on teachers to give this broader context, right?

KR: That's exactly it. The way that we're leaving the curriculum at the moment, it's forcing the teachers to take that extra step to put in extra time to learn about the social context and the history behind the naming conventions of each subject, as well as the contributions that women had in these fields and make a very conscious effort to include that in the classrooms and have that discourse with students. And I think both you and your listeners could agree, teachers kind of have a lot on their plate. They're quite busy and the curriculum is large, there's a lot to cover, so there's really just not time for teachers to take that initiative and then include it in the classroom. And it's not the work of the teachers to do that. It shouldn't be the responsibility of the teachers.

There's also an issue of the majority of science teachers, particularly Physics, are not necessarily physicists themselves don't have that, that Physics training. And so, you're relying on teachers who are teacher trained to then become experts in Physics fields; so much so that they know of the context, they know of this background, and they know of the contributions that women have had to then be including that in the curriculum. And that is just an absurd amount of extra work that you're putting on the teachers; an absurd workload for people that are clearly already overworked and undervalued, and it's really not their responsibility to be doing that. So as a result, the students are the ones that then miss out by not having that recognition included and not having that narrative discussed openly.

There are … most states will have a ‘Science as a Human Endeavour’ section, but there's still even in these sections very rarely an active mention of having that open discourse, of having the discussion about the role that gender played in science discoveries, and the place that women held in traditional science institutes. So, it's again, still, even though there's this section specifically dedicated to having that discourse, it's still not even being included in those sections either.

JE: I mean, a shout out to those teachers that are doing it and a remarkable job of the leg work to make that happen.

KR: Absolutely. Yeah.

JE: So, well done to you, if you are listening and you are one of those that's doing it, but I can imagine like you say such a lot of extra work to be doing which we haven't got time for. Of course, with all areas of the curriculum, then, it's not to say that you can't do that leg work. It might be hard, but it's not to say you can't veer away from, you know, the examples that are given. And so, in the AJE paper you include a list, a starting point. You make that clear – it's just a starting point, there are many, many, many examples out there, believe me, of notable female scientists who, as you say have ‘made significant contributions to common topics currently included in all curricula’. I thought for the last part of the podcast, then, it would be good if we actually gave people a bit of hand with this starting point. Let's go through them, if that's OK?

KR: Absolutely yes.

JE: The first one we've got, Rosalind Franklin. And were you saying that actually she's already mentioned, is she the one?

KR: She's the one that is mentioned in Queensland, NT and SA, so let's at least make it that the rest of the states also include her work. And I think it's important to note that mentioning Rosalind Franklin, at the moment, predominantly she's only ever mentioned in the context of the narrative of Watson and Crick stealing her work. So, she's still only ever really included in the concept of a narrative of men. And I think she should be included, she's done some incredible research, so let's talk about her research – not just this discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, but she did a huge amount of work in developing the field and the pioneering work of the technique of X-ray crystallography. So, there's work that she's done beyond having her work stolen by Watson and Crick, and that, perhaps, is the narrative we should be telling our students. Because otherwise, I mean, currently she's the only representation that we have and the representation of women in STEM in Australia is ‘men will steal your work and get a Nobel Prize for it’. So that's not a great narrative to be having.

JE: No. Let's go to the second one then Nettie Stevens – tell me a bit about Nettie.

KR: Yes, Nettie Stevens, also an incredible scientist. And, as you say, this is a starting point. So, we're kind of mentioning the women that could so easily be included without really changing any of the content. So, Nettie Stevens helped to discover these sex chromosomes in the early 1900s, and in Biology every state is learning about these sex chromosomes. So I think let's have the credit where credit is due, if you're learning about it, learn about Nettie Stevens’ discovery of sex chromosomes.

JE: There you go, teachers, nice easy one for you. Fiona Wood, also biology.

KR: Yes, Fiona Wood was actually one of my role models as a kid. She invented spray on skin and it was really important, particularly in the Bali bombings. So, an incredible medical researcher and helping with burns victims as well. So, another really easy one of just the applications of science and the applications, both on a humanitarian level, but also this incredible invention of spray on skin. I think the content of creating the narrative of ‘we made a discovery … here's the raw science’ is one way to teach science. But Fiona Wood is a great example of how is that science is applied in a modern context, and the impact that it had was so large that she's such a great example of the implications of science as well.

JE: And an Australian scientist as well.

KR: Exactly.

JE: Marie Curie. Well, come on.

KR: Marie Curie. Yeah. Speaks for herself, I hope. I already mentioned Marie Curie – 2 Nobel Prizes in Chemistry and Physics. Discovered radioactivity, coined the term. What more do I need to say really?

JE: If you're not including her, please do. Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin – Chemistry.

KR: Yes. And so, this is also similar to using X-ray techniques to Rosalind Franklin. So, she helped to discover these structures of biochemical structures using X-ray to help really delve into the very small details. So, if you're looking at X-ray and you're looking at these crystalline structures in Chemistry start to mention Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin and the work that she did as well.

JE: Yeah, so that's in that area of crystallography as well, isn't it. Maria Goeppert-Mayer, Chemistry.

KR: Yes, yes. So, we all learn of the different structures of atoms and this shell model of atoms, and that was actually done by Maria Goeppert-Mayer. So … simple again. Credit where credit is due. Nice and simple.

JE: Yeah. Who knew, huh?

KR: Who knew?

JE: Sorry, let me get back to my list. We've got Eunice Foote, Environmental Science. You mentioned her earlier.

KR: I did also mention Eunice Foote. Another great example, I think, particularly Environmental Science is having a real uptick in not just the number of students that are enrolling in it, we're seeing it really climbing quickly as a popular science subject at high school, but particularly with women as well. So, it's women absolutely taking it at higher and higher levels each year. And Eunice Foote, I mentioned that Environmental Science, women have been pioneers from the beginning, and Eunice Foote is a perfect example of that. So, she proposed that excess CO2 in the atmosphere would have this heating effect, a global heating effect, and that is very relevant to today. And we all learn of the global warming effect of the greenhouse effect, and she was really the one that that figured that out.

JE: Marie Tharp, also Environmental Science, and that's to do with tectonic plates, isn't it?

KR: It is. Yes. So she was the one that proposed that there's this … she did the first ocean profile, oceanic floor profile, and from that profile thought ‘oh I'm seeing a lot of ridges here, could there be these plates, these tectonic plates?’ and she proposed that to her supervisor being like ‘oh, I think I've found something’; and initially dismissed, but I think we can all agree now that's a pretty accepted theory now.

JE: And Emma Johnston, of course. Environmental Science, another Australian scientist.

KR: Exactly. Yes, another Aussie, that's it. And this is the thing, there's plenty of Australian scientists that we can include, both historical and more modern examples as well. Emma Johnston is fabulous for environmental research, and also the communication of environmental research, and the importance of environmental research as well. So, I think she's a great example of being able to show why we should do this research and why it's important to maintain the amazing biodiversity that Australia has, and really showcasing how incredible Australian marine biology in particular is, and why we should be saving that.

JE: And perhaps a well-known name of recent times – Michelle Simmons in Physics, another Australian.

KR: Yes, exactly. Yes. So, she's working a lot on super, sorry, semiconductors (not superconductors), semiconductors, which are going to be really – well already are – very, very important for pretty much all technologies that we're using, and creating these really, really efficient ones that have low resistance is also incredibly important for all technologies. And we see a lot of women involved in technologies and information technologies. It's where we're not really very represented. There's not many women enrolling in those courses. It's definitely one of the subjects that we see persistent low levels of women enrolling in it. So, I think having another example of the applications of these electronics and the applications of these laws of electronics into modern technologies is another great example of someone who can be relatable, because you can physically see the impact of it. You're using it in your research, and I think that's another great example of why it's relevant and important to include her.

JE: And the final one to finish your short list – a reminder, it's just a starting point – it's another huge one, isn't it? Lisa Meitner in Physics.

KR: That's it. Yeah, who worked on nuclear fission and a lot of radioactivity related things as well. So, as I mentioned, radioactivity is included across all states, and nuclear fission and fusion is often included as part of that as well. So, Lisa Meitner being a huge person involved in the radioactivity isotopes and the discovery of nuclear fission as well, which is again very important for a lot of power that we use today.

JE: Brilliant. So that's a bit of an idea for you listening. As you mentioned earlier, Kat, just a tokenistic mention of these names though, that's not going to solve anything, that's not going to lead to change. I mean, it's good that we're mentioning them. So that's the starting point to try and develop that relevant and rich context that we were talking about, and content. What would you like to see happen in the longer term?

KR: Yeah. So, as you mentioned, a tokenistic mention is not going to solve that – credit where credit is due, women should be included. Going through that list, as I mentioned, pretty much all of those topics are included in all states, and we learn of that content, we learn of those discoveries, but it's not women who've discovered them; they’re just sort of these spontaneous bits of knowledge that we seem to have found. So, initially having these short-term, credit where credit is due is great, but it doesn't address that problem as you say. And it lacks having that in-depth detailed discussion of how women have been pushed out of science, the implications of that, and the exclusion from these formal institutes as well.

What I really think we need to be doing is a fundamental review of the way we teach science and science education as a whole. Because, at the moment, across the board, there's a really big focus on the content, on ‘this was the (you know), fundamental law; here's the science at its heart’, which is important and that helps a lot of students. But I think, fundamentally, a lot of students are far more engaged when we see the applications, when we see how this science is relevant. And I think one of the most common questions when I was in high school, whenever we were learning something new was just ‘why are we learning this?’ And if the answer is ‘because it's in the syllabus’, that's not really an answer, that's not an interesting answer for a student, and I think it's not interesting for teachers either. If teachers are bored teaching content, then students are going to be bored hearing about it.

So, teaching of these new discoveries, these modern applications of fundamental Physics and fundamental science as well, that's what's really going to be crucial, I think. And also having this student-led discovery, a student-led project, student-led research, where they can go and learn about these things in their own time would be fantastic. But that is essentially a complete overhaul of our entire science education and science curricula. So, I think that's definitely a long-term goal.

In the meantime, my team and I are working on an in-school program; we are actually working with teachers and students to develop an in-school program where we can work with teachers to help them adapt their current lesson plans. We're very familiar with the curriculum, we know it inside out, but we're also very familiar with the women who have contributed to that science. So, helping them to develop this change in the way that they're teaching to include the modern examples, to include these applications while still addressing the syllabus dot points and then starting that conversation with students, having the discourse of what it means to be a woman in STEM and what this ‘lone male genius’ narrative is and where it comes from and why it's a problematic narrative to have.

So, people can absolutely look up a more comprehensive list than just that short one that we mentioned. I think we've collected a list of over 300 women in STEM that can easily be included in curricula across Australia, and that's just on our website at – and you can see everything we're working on there. And hopefully we'll be starting to develop these resources that teachers can download for free to adapt their lesson plans, addressing these dot points, but with a far more inclusive representation of scientists.

JE: Fantastic. That's great work that you're doing there, and thank you so much for joining us today, best of luck with the IncludeHer program as well. For now, though, Dr Kathryn Ross, thanks very much for sharing your expertise with The Research Files.

KR: Thank you so much for having me. Thank you.

That’s all for this episode. If you want to read the full paper, which is open access, from Dr Kat Ross and colleagues type ‘invisible women Australian Journal of Education’ into your search engine, or head to the transcript of this podcast at for a direct link. If you want to keep listening, you can access almost 300 Teacher podcast episodes from our archive at, or wherever you get your podcasts from. Before you go, I have a very quick favour to ask – please take a few moments to review our podcast; it helps other people like you to find it and it’s a big support to the Teacher team, so thank you.

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Ross, K., Galaudage, S., Clark, T., Lowson, N., Battisti, A., Adam, H., Ross, A. K., & Sweaney, N. (2023). Invisible women: Gender representation in high school science courses across Australia. Australian Journal of Education, 0(0).

On your own, or with colleagues, take a look at the course content in your area of science. Have a listen to the starting suggestions of female scientists shared by Dr Kat Ross in this podcast. How could you include these in your own lesson planning?

When you’re teaching content or a concept, how often do you consider the ‘why?’? Do your lessons include information on the application and relevance? Look at a unit of work you’re due to teach. If a student asked you, ‘why are we learning this?’, how would you answer?