Australian of the Year win will help close science gender gap: education advocate

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An education advocate believes Michelle Yvonne Simmons taking home Australian of the Year will "raise the profile of science for women and girls".

Professor Michelle Yvonne Simmons' Australian of the Year win could help close the gender gap in the Australian science industry, according to a leading education advocate.

Central Queensland University's Dr Linda Pfeiffer, who pushes for more science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, told SBS News she was "ecstatic" when she learned the news of Prof Simmons' award.

Dr Pfeiffer said the win would "raise the profile of science for women and girls and [give them] such a wonderful role model".

"[This is] very important for young girls, especially if they have low confidence in their ability to achieve in science, and to see the potential impact they can have on society by being a scientist."

Professor Michelle Yvonne Simmons won the award in recognition of her work in the
Professor Michelle Yvonne Simmons won the award in recognition of her work in the "space race of the computing era."
AAP

Dr Pfeiffer said "a lot of people – women and men – still think that science is mainly men and that they mainly work in a lab and don't do anything exciting", but Thursday's announcement will help remedy this.

Prof Simmons is a pioneering physicist who leads the quantum physics department at the University of New South Wales.

During her acceptance speech, Prof Simmons said her industry is male-dominated and she hoped the win would shatter expectations of what careers women should pursue and achieve.

"I think one of the important things – and the message I hope to get out there – is to defy those expectations," the quantum physicist said.

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Prof Simmons won the award in recognition of her work in the "space race of the computing era".

She is currently building a quantum computer that is so advanced it can solve problems in minutes that would otherwise take thousands of years.

But obstacles remain for women and girls to follow in her footsteps.

A 2016 report by the Office of the Chief Scientist found only 16 per cent of the 2.3 million STEM-qualified Australians were female, with engineering showing the largest gender gap.

According to material from the Science in Australia Gender Equity group, "studies show that women researchers are squeezed out of science careers by structural barriers".

"The loss of such expertise is a significant waste of knowledge, talent and investment," it said.

Dr Pfeiffer said one key way to get more women and girls into STEM fields was to target them in primary school.

"A lot of programs that are funded are targeting Year 9, 10, 11 and 12 students ... That's great, [but] I think by Year 9 a child has decided if they hate science already, even though they might be good at it and might really enjoy it," she said.

Dr Pfeiffer said there needs to be more "funding and professional development and access to resources and experts in these fields" in earlier stages of education.

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