From STEM to full bloom

While science, technology, engineering and maths have traditionally been viewed as male-dominated subjects, a growing number of female students and academics are making waves in STEM, and the world is taking notice.

Dr Vickie Shim

When it comes to breaking glass ceilings, you don't have to look far to find a veritable demolition crew challenging stereotypes and shaping the future. 

Talented Kiwi women with expertise in the areas of science, technology, engineering and maths (known as STEM) are not only growing in number, but making their presence overwhelmingly felt. STEM subjects have taken them around the globe, creating innovative technology and advancing the battle the save the environment; and for many of the country's top minds in this area, the journey began at the University of Auckland.

Dr Heide Friedrich, deputy head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, civil engineer and President of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, is proud that work coming out of the University is not just world leading, but world changing.

"It's really fulfilling to see how students perform not only academically, but also how they contribute to society. They are out there meeting the challenges of sustainability, inequality and all other things that affect our lives."

Such pioneers include the likes of engineering alumna Dr Delwyn Moller, who worked at NASA and provided critical data around climate change in her former role as the director of research at the Centre for Space Science Technology.

Then there's Dr Vickie Shim, whose work at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute could be life changing: she's developing a mobile app that diagnoses the severity of brain injuries through eye movement. 

With a masters degree in mathematics and statistics, Lovina McMurchy wrangled multi-million dollar business growth and held general manager roles at Microsoft and Amazon in the US. And these women are just the tip of the iceberg. 

STEM and beyond

While STEM refers to just four subject areas, it is by no means limiting in the directions students can go - it's an umbrella acronym for a plethora of study areas. Within the Faculty of Engineering alone there are nine specialties, while science has options from clinical psychology to winemaking.

Dr Claire Postlethwaite, Associate Professor in Applied Mathematics, explains that likewise, maths is about more than just calculations.

"Maths can be applied to lots of different sciences; I've worked on animal behaviour with people in the School of Biology, and I have an idea for a project with chemistry," she says.

Dr Claire Postlethwaite

"I'm keen to get involved in research that could actually solve some of the world's biggest problems."

STEM subjects offer an opportunity to make a real difference, but - on a purely practical level - they create job security too. Engineering, health, information and computer technology, and science all feature on New Zealand's long term skills shortage list.

With forecasts that 80% of future jobs will require maths and science skills, it's little wonder our government is devoting hefty resources to encourage more students into STEM. "If you want a financially secure future, then this course of study is definitely a good pathway towards that," says Heide.

Female futures

Of course, we can't ignore the obvious; for all that numbers are increasing, women are still woefully under-represented both as students and within the workforce in STEM.

It's a situation the University of Auckland is determined to change, as illustrated by initiatives such as the Faculty of Engineering's drive to buck international trends and ensure 33% of first-year undergraduates are female

Claire firmly believes addressing the gender imbalance will improve outcomes for all. "When the group is more diverse, everyone benefits," says the associate professor, who is on the working group for the University's Women in Science Network, which aims to support female students and staff.

"Women bring different experience and perspectives; we need as many females as we can get."

Heide agrees. "In order to tackle the challenges we have as a society, we need more viewpoints," she says. 

And you can guarantee, these females will be changing New Zealand for the better.

Meet more women in STEM

Our female academics and students share their experiences in STEM.