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Women with disabilities 'underestimated' as battle for equality in science careers heats up

Zia Westerman was interested in studying geoscience but a lack of flexibility around field trips caused her to do an arts degree instead. "I've always had an interest to study that topic. I tried searching for local universities, so I could study on campus," she said. "I tried searching online. I did find something where you had to go overseas to study as well … I didn't want to do that at the time."

Ms Westerman, who has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair, was unable to find anything in Australia that was able to cater to her needs.

Statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show just a fraction of higher education students have a disability. In 2022, people with disabilities made up just 6.3 per cent of university enrolments in Australia, and only 1.2 per cent had a profound disability. Of those, only a handful studied science.

Women with disabilities 'underestimated'

Geologist and lecturer Melanie Finch believes the lack of inclusion in geoscience is an attitude problem rather than a lack of opportunities for disabled academics. "The general point of view [is] you won't be able to be a geoscientist because you are not able to traverse rugged terrain," she said.

"It's ridiculous. Hardly any geoscientists are routinely traversing rugged terrain. People with a disability might be underestimated or they might be written off in a way because people don't understand the scope of what people with disabilities are capable of," Dr Finch said.

Dr Finch has become a trailblazer in smashing gender stereotypes about scientists and is a powerful role model for girls and women wanting to pursue careers in male-dominated industries.

"Seeing is believing," Dr Finch said. "When girls have women scientists as role models, they are more likely to continue into science."

Dr Finch says there's plenty of room for women with disabilities in the geosciences. Dr Finch is leading the way on multiple fronts, as a lecturer in geoscience at James Cook University and as president of Women in Earth and Environmental Sciences in Australasia (WOMEESA), which is a network connecting women working in academia, industry and government.

'Leaky pipeline' sees women drop out of workforce

A research paper she co-authored found almost half of geoscience students were female, but the numbers start dropping off as soon as they entered the workforce. It found this "leaky pipeline" also extended to academia, as well as the mining industry in Australia, and that male university graduates had a starting salary around six per cent higher than women in the geosciences.Dr Finch said the reasons for women quitting the geosciences included unequal pay, sexual harassment and assault, and discrimination in the workplace.

She said sexual assault was the main reason women left the mining industry, but the issues were more subtle in the university sector. "The number one for me would be unconscious biases or implicit biases against women," Dr Finch said. "And they affect decisions around hiring and around promotions. And also, they affect the culture of a workplace," she explained.

Disabled women must contend with intersectional biases because they fit into two different minority demographics. Intersectionality refers to the interconnected nature of social categorisations such as race, class, gender and disability and how they can overlap to create disadvantage and discrimination.

Global studies have shown disabled women were far less likely than men to be employed, educated or receive equal pay. 

Colleagues should not assume 'what is best'

Being a female scientist with a disability is difficult but Verity Normington has been a field geologist for years. Dr Normington has been affected by Crohn's disease her whole life. She first noticed the symptoms of the inflammatory bowel disease when finishing high school and it continued to impact her studies at university. "It meant that sometimes I had to go part-time, particularly at uni. I had some pretty serious surgeries," she said. "I took two separate semesters off, which put me behind. So, it took me about five years to finish my undergrad."

But the chronic illness has not stopped her from being successful in her career. Dr Normington has been to some of the most remote landscapes in central Australia, but she says her colleagues sometimes think they know what's best for her without asking. "Everyone's like, 'oh, we'll just let Verity rest and recover'... but they never actually asked me what I wanted to do," she said.

"When people have said, 'Verity, you shouldn't be doing that because of the illness', that comes from the best place, but it doesn't really come from an informed place." 

A culture of discrimination

Geologist Caroline Tiddy, who co-authored the research paper with Dr Finch, said part of the problem was the geosciences suffered from an ingrained culture that discriminated against difference. Caroline Tiddy said attitudes in science professions had not evolved in line with those in the broader community.

"Geosciences is such a male-dominated environment … people don't always know what to do with a woman in the room," Dr Tiddy said. "A lot of those cultures haven't changed with that evolution in society's thinking. And I think that that creates barriers to women in geosciences."

The issue of intersectionality makes science difficult for many minorities.

A female geologist, who did not want to be named, said being a woman of colour was more of a disadvantage than if she had been a man and part of a racial minority. "I think there'd still be some sort of racial discrimination regardless, but it makes it worse because of the gender and the colour of my skin … I have absolutely no doubts about that. "The issue with intersectionality [is] the more boxes you tick ... woman ... differently abled … it just gets harder and harder really," she said.

Less 'respect' for certain disabilities

Intersectionality is more complicated for Amber Boyatzis, a female biochemist with Crohn's disease and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Dr Boyatzis said there was less respect for behavioural disabilities like ADHD than strictly physical conditions like Crohn's Disease.

Even though both conditions had affected her academic career, Dr Boyatzis still has not disclosed her ADHD to her colleagues. "Thinking about my Crohn's disease and my ADHD and how they're perceived differently, Crohn's is definitely seen as something I have no control over," she said.

"There's a bit of a pity element and so people are quite understanding. There's like a really big misunderstanding about what ADHD looks like, what it is, what helps people. When I have kind of like hinted at it, people are sceptical that I might not have ADHD, that I might just be trying to set too high standards for myself … and so that has not filled me with confidence."

The 'male privilege' advantage

Richard Hill is a field-exploration geologist who believes "male privilege" and his 'invisible' disability have worked in his favour. Richard Hill believes his gender has helped him in a "male-dominated" profession.

Mr Hill has ADHD and struggled while at university. He does not usually tell people about his condition because it is not well understood. "I've worked for a lot of different companies all over Australia as a contractor. Being neuro-atypical, I don't do so well in systems," he said.

Even though ADHD impacted Mr Hill's studies, he believes his career has been successful because his disability is not visible, and his field is male-dominated. "Exploration is somewhat of a boy's club," he said. "If a geologist, whether they're male or female, is good at their job then everyone's sort of happy with them. "But if they're maybe not spectacular at their job, males still find it pretty easy to find work … whereas a female geologist … might be judged a bit more harshly. A male in a similar position might get away with a fair bit more." 

Even though the glass ceiling in science-based professions is starting to lift for women, there is still a lot of work to be done to achieve equality and inclusion for women with disabilities.  

Read more about Women with disabilities 'underestimated' as battle for equality in science careers heats up

Source: ABC News Author: Eleanor Beidatsch