Close Search
 
MEDIA, JOBS & RESOURCES for the COMMON GOOD
Changemaker  |  CareersProfessional development

The woman changing the STEM gender game


27 April 2022 at 5:10 pm
Jonathan Alley
Dr Ruwangi Fernando has a strong history advocating for diversity and inclusion in STEM. Her belief in giving back to community led her to establish STEM Sisters in 2018, to empower women of colour working in the STEM disciplines. She is this week’s Changemaker.


Jonathan Alley | 27 April 2022 at 5:10 pm


0 Comments


 Print
The woman changing the STEM gender game
27 April 2022 at 5:10 pm

Dr Ruwangi Fernando has a strong history advocating for diversity and inclusion in STEM. Her belief in giving back to community led her to establish STEM Sisters in 2018, to empower women of colour working in the STEM disciplines. She is this week’s Changemaker.

Dr Ruwangi Fernando is an impassioned advocate for women of colour working in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). The Sri Lankan-born IT specialist has a strong research background in artificial intelligence, and has been recognised by both Pro Bono Australia (she was an Impact 25 finalist in 2021) and the Australian Academy of Science (who recognised her work with a STEM Changemaker Award). STEM Sisters is a voluntary project: Fernando is currently taking a year-off after her PhD to establish the organisation and expand nationally, which has worked on a minimal budget since it was launched.

The initiative runs a range of programs to resource its participants, including mentoring, several events and workshops, and several advocacy campaigns

In this week’s Changemaker, Dr Fernando tells us why establishing STEM Sisters was vitally important, the challenges the organisation still faces, and the “concrete or bamboo ceiling” facing many women of colour in the STEM sector.

Why did you establish STEM Sisters?

I founded STEM Sisters when I started my PhD journey at Victoria University. My exploration of the Australian STEM sector convinced me that STEM diversity and inclusion efforts for women were primarily focused on gender but needed an intersectional approach. It was evident that that the community of STEM women of colour was significantly large, and required tallied support to uplift themselves which largely benefits the economy. All women have a glass ceiling to break through, but we as women of colour experience a concrete or bamboo ceiling.

STEM Sisters empowers STEM women of colour who are culturally and linguistically diverse through a range of uniquely structured programs specially developed to empower women of colour in STEM. Australia is transitioning from a resource-based economy to diverse, innovative, and technologically based. STEM jobs are growing twice as fast as other jobs, and STEM employers have difficulty recruiting for STEM jobs (56 per cent) compared to others (41 per cent). This highlights the demand for diverse STEM talent.

Surprisingly, STEM women are experiencing unemployment, especially women of colour in STEM – overseas-born STEM women’s unemployment is four times higher than Australian-born STEM women. Australia needs a more diverse STEM population as diversity hugely benefits technological innovation.

What are the inherent challenges of STEM Sisters’ work and how do you counter them?

Women of colour in STEM experience a leaky pipeline, and they fall through the cracks. It requires diverse initiatives to address these unique challenges women of colour face in STEM. There’s a lack of role models, mentors and peer networks, a lack of opportunity to engage with STEM professional networks, bias in employment and advancement opportunities, and stereotypes that threaten personal confidence. 

STEM Sisters coordinates and runs a range of unique structured programs specially developed to empower women of colour in STEM. The key barriers to WOC growth in STEM are gender and racial bias. Women are treated differently based on their race and class and their distinct characteristics such as skin colour, accent when speaking English, and names. Women of colour have tried to fit into a male-dominated STEM industry by losing their identity and hiding their distinct characteristics, which ultimately impacts their confidence. The BE YOU program is designed to help women come out of this vicious cycle of trying to fit in.

The STEM Sisters mentoring program provides women of colour as STEM mentees an opportunity to increase their understanding of the STEM sector, strengthen their skills to succeed in the STEM industry, and extend their professional network.

STEM Sisters’ ambassador program aims to provide talented and ambitious WOC students who study in STEM fields or have recently graduated with the opportunity to enhance their professional skills to feel more connected with the STEM industry.

You have a LinkedIn group for STEM women, what have been some of the positive outcomes?

The LinkedIn group ensures that the members are informed when there are opportunities for employment and advancement in STEM careers. According to research, about 22 per cent of jobs are not advertised, and this hidden job market relies on having a solid professional network. It is believed that about 60 to 80 per cent of jobs are secured via the hidden job market in Australia. One of the most effective ways to find jobs in Australia’s hidden job market is LinkedIn, and it takes time to build networks. The STEM Sisters LinkedIn group Increase Awareness of Opportunities (currently 900+ members) consists of our women of colour network in STEM and our allies.

Through the LinkedIn group, women of colour can gain information/resources and STEM opportunities, such as vacancies, awards, graduate programs, internships, events, grants, scholarships and gain a sense of belonging and a community – an online sisterhood.

In terms of your own personal experience with STEM Sisters, what have been some key moments?

[It’s been] a wild, unexpected and fantastic ride for the last four years with STEM Sisters. It’s my first entrepreneurial attempt and I’m very grateful for the support I received. 

The key barriers to the growth of WOC in STEM are gender and racial bias. To combat these struggles, I grew a community with volunteers and advisory panel members. The panel members include well recognised STEM diversity and inclusion experts who guide our progress. Meanwhile, STEM Sisters talented volunteers from diverse backgrounds dedicate their time and efforts. The impact of STEM Sisters has continued to motivate me towards following my most ambitious prospects and the accomplishment that I’m the proudest of in my career is founding and leading STEM Sisters.

 

STEM Sisters’ digital magazine, Magnify, can be seen here and STEM Sisters is bringing its first ever soapbox science event to Melbourne on Friday 19 August. Find out more here.  


Jonathan Alley  |  @ProBonoNews

Jonathan Alley is opinion editor at Pro Bono Australia.

PB Careers
Get your biweekly dose of news, opinion and analysis to keep you up to date with what’s happening and why it matters for you, sent every Tuesday and Thursday morning.

Got a story to share?

Got a news tip or article idea for Pro Bono News? Or perhaps you would like to write an article and join a growing community of sector leaders sharing their thoughts and analysis with Pro Bono News readers? Get in touch at news@probonoaustralia.com.au or download our contributor guidelines.

Advertisement

Webinar Value Packs

Get more stories like this

FREE SOCIAL
SECTOR NEWS

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



YOU MAY ALSO LIKE

Why now is the time to think about upskilling your employees

Wendy Williams

Thursday, 5th May 2022 at 3:42 pm

Are you the communicator you think you are?

Jonathan Alley

Wednesday, 4th May 2022 at 6:25 pm

Is being a perfectionist harming your career?

Maggie Coggan

Thursday, 21st April 2022 at 2:36 pm

Investing in leadership: Social Impact Leadership Australia

Contributor

Tuesday, 29th March 2022 at 7:00 am

pba inverse logo
Subscribe Twitter Facebook
×