It is time to break down the barriers

Equity: Anna-Maria Arabia is focused on addressing imbalances in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Image: Australian Academy of Science
Equity: Anna-Maria Arabia is focused on addressing imbalances in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Image: Australian Academy of Science

During high school, Nadia Khan felt drawn to science.

"Biology and chemistry were the subjects that I was most interested in. I always had this idea that science or medicine would be where I would end up," she said.

Not only did Khan enjoy these subjects, she excelled in them, and went on to complete a Bachelor of Biomedical Science followed by an Honours degree.

"That's when I realised I've got an interest in improving access to health care and I felt ready to pursue a PhD."

As part of her PhD, Khan completed an internship through APR.Intern where she contributed to Cancer Australia's National Pancreatic Cancer Roadmap. While aware of the importance of diversity in research and treatment outcomes, it was here that Ms Khan saw how diversity can impact health.

"There's a lot of research studies which immediately exclude participants if they can't speak English, for example. Cancer Australia was focused on improving access to healthcare for all of our population. We were always asking, 'Are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people or people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds represented in the research that we're looking at?'"

Anna-Maria Arabia, CEO of the Australian Academy of Science has been leading a push to address gender inequity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). In 2019 the Academy, along with the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, released the Women in STEM Decadal Plan.

In Australia, women make up only 16 per cent of the STEM-skilled workforce. The plan highlighted that for Australia to meet future challenges, a more equitable gender balance needed to be reached.

"Many industries understand that to be profitable, to make the best decisions around the boardroom table, and to gather the workforce that they need for their future, they need to be more inclusive," said Arabia.

One issue identified in the decadal plan was how multiple inequalities compound and impact women in STEM.

Buy-in: Nadia Khan has seen first hand how medical research needs to involve the whole community. Image: Supplied

Buy-in: Nadia Khan has seen first hand how medical research needs to involve the whole community. Image: Supplied

"For example, as a woman in STEM there are barriers you face but being an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander woman in STEM adds additional and different barriers," said Arabia.

"We don't yet understand a enough about how to address the impact of multiple barriers."

While senior female academics and mentors supported Khan during her studies, there was little diversity in cultural and linguistic background.

"I was born here but my background is Bangladeshi and there's just not many role models that I can look up to."

During her honours year, Khan was part of a project that looked at the perinatal mental health of migrant and refugee women.

"Something like that cannot work without buy-in from the community," said Khan.

"It's absolutely imperative to have that input."

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