Women with disabilities ‘underestimated’ as battle for equality in science careers heats up

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

“I’ve always had an interest in studying that topic. I tried searching for local universities, so I could study on campus,” she said.

“I tried searching online. I did find something where you had to go overseas to study as well … I didn’t want to do that at the time.”

Ms Westerman, who has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair, was unable to find anything in Australia that was able to cater to her needs.

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

In 2022, people with disabilities made up just 6.3 percent of university enrollments in Australia, and only 1.2 percent had a profound disability. Of those, only a handful studied science.

Women with disabilities ‘underestimated’

Geologist and lecturer Melanie Finch believes the lack of inclusion in geoscience is an attitude problem rather than a lack of opportunities for disabled academics.

Melanie Finch encourages women to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM).(Supplied)

“The general point of view [is] you won’t be able to be a geoscientist because you are not able to traverse rugged terrain,” she said.

“It’s ridiculous. Hardly any geoscientists are routinely traversing rugged terrain.”

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

Dr Finch has become a trailblazer in smashing gender stereotypes about scientists and is a powerful role model for girls and women wanting to pursue careers in male-dominated industries.

Melanie Finch holds her camera with rocks and ocean in the background
Dr. Finch says there’s plenty of room for women with disabilities in the geosciences. (Supplied)

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

‘Leaky pipeline’ sees women drop out of the workforce

A research paper she co-authored found almost half of geoscience students were female, but the numbers started dropping off as soon as they entered the workforce.

It found this “leaky pipeline” also extended to academia, as well as the mining industry in Australia, and that male university graduates had a starting salary around six percent higher than women in the geosciences.

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