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Celebrating International Day of Women and Girls in Science

Celebrating International Day of Women and Girls in Science

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

To celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science on 11 February, Council’s Environment Protection Officer Katherine Whittaker talks about how she got into the natural sciences, tips for young women to get into the industry, and what she gets up to day to day – and it’s far from the ‘white coat in a lab’ stereotype.

How did you end up working in the natural sciences?

I had two mentors in my life when I was in high school. One was my dad. He always encouraged exploration of the natural world. The other was my Year 12 biology teacher, and his influence is why I chose to study biological sciences (having a mentor in your life is key to having a sense of direction!). My biology teacher was passionate, engaging and he made biology so interesting. I had a thirst to learn more. I went into a really broad degree and took the stream of botany and zoology because of my natural affinity for plants and animals.

What does a typical workday look like for you?

My job has changed over the years in the industry but a day in the field can include a lot of things: data collection, lots of walking, mapping trees, flora and fauna surveys, weed identification, meeting with land managers and providing advice. There are also opportunities to listen to wonderful stories, write grant proposals, manage contractors, drive off-road, host events like workshops or forums and take photos. There are the office-based tasks like report writing and meetings as well, but plenty of my workdays include being outside enjoying fresh air, sunshine and the sounds of nature.

I may visit a landowner who has a weed species they aren’t sure about, for example. That’s one of the best parts of the job – meeting people on their properties, learning about their backgrounds, future plans, introducing them to some opportunities for biodiversity protection. A lot of it is educating the local community.

Some people may have the idea that working in science will mean wearing a white coat in a lab. But that’s not necessarily the case, is it?

No, for my role, it’s not like what you see in the movies at all. For some sciences it is, but for the natural sciences in particular, typically you are outdoors. You are constantly discovering something new. Discovering something new is what science is, of course. But in natural sciences, you head out and typically go somewhere different each time. My job has taken me across the state, checking out different vegetation types and visiting many different communities across Victoria. So, it’s definitely not in a lab in a white coat! You need to be physically fit and there’s lots of Occupational Health and Safety. There is quite a lot beyond the science you are practising.

Do you have advice for girls or young women looking to get into science?

It’s good early on to work out what you’re passionate about. In the early stages, it can be hard work that isn’t particularly well-paid. It helps to be passionate about what you’re doing because you’ll enjoy it more and seek out opportunities, which will help progress your career.

A great thing for people to do is build skills in other complementary areas. You’ll learn so much in your studies, but that won’t necessarily give you the skills that can make you successful in your career, like interpersonal skills. You can build those outside your studies and by working in different industries. I worked in hospitality while I studied. Many of the skills that help me in my job today were actually developed by working in hospitality.

Field-based sciences can be gruelling work - so make sure you enjoy it. I have spent days or up to a week away for work, and it can be long hours. But it’s incredibly rewarding.

Would you like to see more women in science?

Yes. No doubt!

There is a large gender discrepancy across various scientific fields – statistics show that women are less likely to study or be employed in these kinds of fields. In your career have you identified any barriers for women wanting a career in science?

It has really changed. When I first started in the industry, 15 or 16 years ago, I was the only woman in my first job. There could have been barriers, particularly physical barriers. But for me, there’s nothing that anyone asked of me that I thought ‘I can’t do it, give it to one of the men’.

There are some big personalities and they can be intimidating. They assert themselves because they have an idea of where they want to get to in their career, so it’s good to have a thick skin. But I can’t think of any work situations where gender would limit capability in the natural sciences.

Particularly in the earlier stages of your career, for some women they may encounter some confronting attitudes that need changing in terms of language and stereotypes used in workplaces – but the good news is that it is changing! These days it gets called out.

Another barrier for women in science can be having a family. It was my choice, but it was a limitation career-wise. You can’t necessarily go away for days at a time on field trips, so that can be a bit of a game-changer.

Beyond those barriers, I’ve never seen myself as anything but an individual rather than a gender, meaning I’ve never had the perspective that I can’t do what the man next to me is doing.