We all thrive when women and gender minorities work in science

The EPA is proud to support women in science. Hannah Davidson speaks to her science colleagues about the importance of diversity, equality, and encouraging a twinkle of curiosity in young people.

5 March 2020

For International Women’s Day in 2020, we reflect on the diverse number of science roles filled by women at the EPA. While there is still a way to go before gender equality is achieved in science (and in general), our scientists think that with the right support, there’s no reason why we can’t get there.

Diversity of thought comes from diversity of scientists - an ongoing effort to address gender inequality

This Sunday, 8 March, is International Women’s Day – a day for recognising the achievements of ordinary women who have made extraordinary contributions to their communities. It also is marked every year to acknowledge the progress made in reaching gender equality, and the advances required to achieve it. 

The theme for International Women’s Day 2020 is #EachforEqual, drawing on the notion of collective individualism. Collective individualism acknowledges the impacts that our actions, conversations, behaviours and mind-sets as individuals can have on society as a whole.

Tackling local and global issues from climate change to health crises requires multi-faceted approaches. This means supporting the full ability of everyone to be heard, and to contribute ideas and solutions. No country has yet achieved gender equality, and looking at the somewhat gloomy statistics on the underrepresentation of women and girls in STEM (that is, science, mathematics, engineering and maths) and academic pay-gaps, it is evident that gender inequality persists in the sciences.

Read more about gender inequality in science

Meet inspiring women in science at the EPA

At the EPA, we are proud to buck the trends. We require numerous diverse science and technical experts – from advisors on hazardous substances and administering the Emissions Trading Scheme, to understanding marine environments and decision-making in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Many of these positions are held by women with a variety of expertise and levels of education (in fact, more than half of our staff members are women!).

We asked a small handful of these scientists about their background and expertise in science, and a few common themes arose. Their passion for their area of science twinkled around the edges of a humble gratitude for support, and no room was left to doubt that women and girls belong in these spaces.

Meet Manda, Tracy, Helena, Marieke, Karen and Isabel, and check out what advice they have for young women and gender minorities thinking about a career in science.

Regardless of our gender, racial, ethnic or cultural backgrounds – the science world needs our ideas, initiatives, skills and intelligence. Image of Manda Safavi, Senior advisor – New Organisms.

Science helped me to discover my passions and identify the area I wanted to work in – environmental protection. Image of Tracy Poole, Analyst – ETS Compliance.

Science is a great career – there are so many fields and areas to get in to that there is something to suit everyone. Image of Karen Hofmann-Body, Senior advisor – Hazardous Subsatnces

Science allowed me to pursue a career that excited me and allowed me to help others. Image of Helena Abolins-Thompson, Science inter.

With the right support you don't have to come from an academic background. Find your passion and connect with those who can help you. Image of Marieke Soeter, Senior advisor – Hazardous Substances.

No matter what your gender identity, you have a right to be believed in, respected, and supported. Image of Isabel Herstell, Analyst – ETS Compliance.

With different backgrounds and experiences, all genders have something to contribute to science that can only make it more relevant and useful to society. Empowering individuals to believe both in their ability and their right to participate means that collectively we can thrive.

Support to learn and discover is integral to the success of women and girls in science

When asked to reflect upon what pulled them towards science, the answer was almost unanimously related to a begging curiosity towards the world surrounding them as young girls. Children are the best little scientists, in my opinion. Their development is wired around observation, repetition and testing all kinds of boundaries. 

Whether this curiosity is explored by chasing frogs and bugs across country landscapes, in the depths of books, or in the classroom – having support to learn and discover is integral to the success of women and girls in science.

Tracy Poole, an ecologist and analyst in our ETS compliance team, asserts that it is the passion for what you do that counts. “Science helped me to discover my passions, and identify the area in which I wanted to work – environmental protection.”

“With the right support and attitude it doesn’t make a difference if you are from a classic academic environment or not,” adds Marieke Soeter, an ecotoxicologist and Senior Advisor in our Hazardous Substances team. 

Creating and supporting avenues for all people to explore the science and wonders of the environment around them is critical in supporting girls and women to follow their passions. We need to foster learning and working spaces where their voices may be heard, and their questions answered.

“No matter what your gender identity, you have a right to be believed in, respected, and supported. Accept that wholeheartedly, and give it away just as readily,” says Isabel Herstel, a conservation biologist and analyst in our ETS team. 

Talking about bias in the system, and steps towards change                                     

Acknowledging and talking about the systematic biases that exist in science culture and have resulted in underrepresentation and pay inequity is a good step towards dismantling the prejudice. The Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor (and arguably Aotearoa’s top science leader), Professor Juliet Gerrard, is often heard highlighting and prioritising the issue, and it is something we give deliberate thought to here at the EPA.

While our brilliant women of science fly a flag of strength and excellence from our offices here in Wellington, there is more work to be done in actively including and supporting women and girls in science to have their voices heard and successes celebrated.

You can support the young people in your life by encouraging curiosity, challenging gender stereotypes, and teaching the value of failure and development of skills over time. Talk about the successes of women in STEM, and give space for young women to speak up and explore the diversity of roles one can assume as a scientist.

Hannah Davidson's biography

Hannah hails from Otago/Southland, where she completed a Master of Science in Chemistry at the University of Otago, focussed on the topic of improving alternative plastic processes. Hannah joined the EPA in 2019 as Science Research assistant, bringing a passion for science communication and its role in environmental protection.