Disabled women ‘underestimated’ as battle for equality in science careers intensifies

Zia Westerman was interested in studying geosciences, but a lack of flexibility regarding field trips forced her to pursue a bachelor of arts.

“I’ve always been interested in studying that subject. I’ve tried looking for local colleges so I can study on campus,” he said.

“I tried searching online. I found something where you also had to go abroad to study… 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 would meet her needs.

Statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show that only a fraction of higher education students have a disability.

In 2022, people with disabilities made up just 6.3% of university enrollments in Australia, and only 1.2% were profoundly disabled. Of them, only a handful studied science.

Women with disabilities ‘underestimated’

Geologist and professor Melanie Finch believes that the lack of inclusion in geosciences is an attitudinal problem rather than a lack of opportunities for disabled academics.

A portrait studio photo of Melanie Finch
Melanie Finch encourages women to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).(Supplied)

“The general point of view [is] you won’t be able to be a geoscientist because you can’t traverse rough terrain,” he said.

“It’s ridiculous. Hardly any geoscientist routinely traverses rough terrain.”

“People with disabilities may be underestimated or they may be written off in some way because people don’t understand the extent of what people with disabilities are capable of,” said Dr. Finch.

Dr. Finch has become a pioneer in destroying gender stereotypes about scientists and is a powerful role model for girls and women who want to pursue careers in male-dominated industries.

Melanie Finch holds her camera with rocks and the ocean in the background
Dr. Finch says there is a lot of room for women with disabilities in geosciences. (Supplied)

Dr. Finch is leading the way on multiple fronts, as a professor of geoscience at James Cook University and as chair of Women in Earth and Environmental Sciences in Australasia (WOMEESA), which is a network connecting women working in academia, industry, and government.

‘Leaky pipeline’ is driving women out of the workforce

A research paper she co-authored found that almost half of geoscience students were women, but the numbers start to drop as soon as they enter the workforce.

It found that this “leaky pipeline” extended to academia as well, as well as to the mining industry in Australia, with male university graduates earning about six percent higher starting salaries than women in the geosciences.

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