No-brainer: New Zealand’s top female neuroscientists on why we need more women in science

Every secondary school student in New Zealand will have access to a book debunking gender stereotypes in science thanks to Brain Research New Zealand and a best selling science writer.

Brain Research New Zealand (BRNZ) has partnered with Laurie Winkless, an Irish-born, Wellington-based physicist and science writer, to get a copy of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research that’s Rewriting the Story” into every secondary school in New Zealand.

“Inferior”, written by Angela Saini, challenges and debunks the biases and gender-based stereotypes in science. The book celebrates women’s contributions to science and shows that their potential is not limited by their gender or sex.

BRNZ, a Centre of Research Excellence, is also dedicating February to visit as many girls’ and co-ed secondary schools as they can. Research from the UK has shown that students who spend time with working scientists have a much more positive impression of STEM careers than those who only hear about it from their teachers. So, BRNZ is sending its female researchers to inspire the future generation of scientists and show them the amazing things they can achieve – for themselves, and ultimately, for all New Zealand.

Among the countries’ top female neuroscientists supported by BRNZ:

  • Dr Hinemoa Elder is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Starship, with a PhD, postdoctoral and ongoing research in traumatic brain injury, a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland, and a strong advocate for te reo Māori and for greater awareness of Māori cultural needs in the health sector. She is also the first indigenous alumni of the Homeward Bound project, a global women in science leadership programme.
  • Professor Ngaire Kerse, the Chair in Ageing Well at the University of Auckland, is an international expert in maximising health for older people and co-leads a large cohort study on life and living in advanced age – while at the same time, working as a GP for Auckland City Mission and climbing mountains.
  • Distinguished Professor Dame Margaret Brimble, who conducts research in medicinal chemistry and drug discovery at the University of Auckland, is a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, the only female New Zealand-based scientist to join the ranks of Sir Isaac Newton and Sir Charles Darwin.
  • Professor Bronwen Connor at the University of Auckland has led pioneering work on the treatment of neurological disorders, is the head of the University’s Neural Reprogramming and Repair Lab, and has developed Being Brainy, an educational science programme that teaches children all about the human brain.

Beyond encouragement, the need to dismantle biases and barriers was underlined by a recent finding that female academics in New Zealand earn $400,000 less than their male counterparts throughout their career. Globally, less than 30 percent of researchers are female. Only about 9 percent of the Royal Society Te Aparangi’s Fellowship are women.

“It is unacceptable that women are not paid equally for the same work,” says Dr Hinemoa Elder, Māori Strategy Leader at BRNZ. “Numerous studies have found that women in STEM fields publish less and do not progress as far as men in their careers.”

The disparities start to emerge early. “There are a whole range of factors that impact on girls and women being able to study science, from educational pathways to social factors, such as starting a family and workplace environment, expectations, sexism, racism, and bullying.”  

Having more women at all levels, in particular in leadership roles, will shift the structures that perpetuate ongoing discrimination.  

Dr Hinemoa Elder

We need to do more to get more female voices into science, and to make them heard, she says. “It’s good for girls, it’s good for science, and it’s good for the men too. Having more women at all levels, in particular in leadership roles, will shift the structures that perpetuate ongoing discrimination. More women and girls in science means that more women are involved in decision-making, not just in science but in our whole society.” This is especially critical in today’s world, as we face challenges like climate change, which impact certain groups more than others, Dr Elder points out.

A diverse workforce with a variety of viewpoints is also essential to ensure access to high-quality health care for all New Zealanders. To achieve this, we need to train and retain more female scientist for our research and healthcare workforce – and specifically, Māori and Pacific people. “At Brain Research New Zealand, we see a particular need to support kōtiro Māori, young Māori women students, to have access to science options,” Dr Elder says.

Brain Research New Zealand offers a range of Māori scholarships to support this group as they come to university and has established a Mātauranga platform to foster kaupapa Māori research.

BRNZ also runs other initiatives to encourage more girls into science careers and break down barriers as early as possible. Its Being Brainy programme is taking neuroscience to primary and intermediate school students, giving young students a first taste of science. The Brain Bee neuroscience competition for Year 11 serves as a steppingstone for studying science at university.  

About Brain Research New Zealand – Rangahau Roro Aotearoa

Brain Research New Zealand – Rangahau Roro Aotearoa (BRNZ) is a national Centre for Research Excellence undertaking ground-breaking research on the ageing brain and ageing-related neurological disorders.

Neurological disorders pose one of the greatest global challenges of our time. By bringing together New Zealand’s best neuroscientists and clinicians, and working in partnership with the community, BRNZ aims to undertake the translational biomedical research necessary to tackle this challenge head on – to improve people’s lives through brain research and, ultimately, the wellbeing of our ageing population.

Brain Research New Zealand is co-hosted by the University of Auckland and the University of Otago, in collaboration with the University of Canterbury and Auckland University of Technology.

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