Why I was never going to apply for a program called “Superstars of STEM” – and why I did anyway

A program that trains women to be celebrity scientists, change makers and smashers of society’s gender assumptions. 

Um, no thank you.

Now, that might surprise some, given that I’m just about to finish said program.

I told myself I had four *very good and logical* reasons not to apply. 

  1. What kind of arrogant so-and-so goes around proclaiming that they’re a superstar anyway? (Aka. “What would other people *think*?”)
  2. I was not an academic superstar yet. My path has been messy and tenuous and insecure. 
  3. It’s not a good use of my time for no job security, payment, or tangible academic output. I could spend that time writing grants or papers instead.
  4. I object to the fact that women have to be superstars just to survive in science. Why can’t I just do a good job? #feminism 

These are all, in fact, terrible reasons rooted in fear, self-doubt, and dodgy narratives. My experience draws from the Superstars of STEM program here in Australia (from Science and Technology Australia, read more here), but I’m willing to bet the same barriers stop women self-nominating for awards and opportunities across all kinds of fields. 

So if any of that sounds even remotely familiar, read on. 

What will people think?

Growing up, the worst thing a girl could do was try to get attention. Or try at anything. The second worst thing was to know you were good at something. So a program that first requires you to self-identify as awesome, and then publicly draws attention to your skills and expertise, went against 30 years of hard-wiring.

My biggest concern: “If I apply for a program called Superstars of STEM, won’t people think I’m a w*nker?” I carefully considered the imagined internal diatribes of my colleagues: “Ugh, there she goes, little miss ‘look at me, look at me’”, “She’d be better off putting her head down and actually doing some science”, “Who does she think she is?”

Worrying about what other people think is a terrible reason not to do something. Are you really going to avoid an incredible opportunity for personal growth and professional development because you don’t want to ‘seem to showy’?

Why do women always have to be ‘super’?

Supermums, rising stars, excellence in diversity – however you dress it up, it can often feel like women have to put in thrice as much work just to get an edge in. Why can’t I just be enough? 

Of course, of COURSE, the solution to a gender inequality in STEM is not “Women should just be more awesome”. And there are real, systemic issues that need to be solved. We discuss these things as a group all the time and each of us are working to make change in our own communities and institutions. 

But the program isn’t about being more than. It’s about encouraging women in STEM to step up and inhabit their space. To own their expertise and share their knowledge without apology, without asking for permission. That’s the superpower. 

I could be writing papers instead 

Sure, you could. But let’s be honest, you won’t, will you? Because that’s not how time works. You’d probably spend it in a meeting or on a committee or organising a conference. 

This is a rare license to dedicate time to your own personal and professional development. The time commitment is exactly what it should be if you’re going to gain a new set of skills. 

If the time issue is truly holding you back, maybe it’s time to ask why you’re so hesitant to invest in yourself?

I haven’t ‘made it’ yet

I don’t see myself as having the shiniest of career paths. I’ve never had a permanent job, I’ve spent a bit of time unemployed or on Frankenstein Postdocs, I don’t have ‘THE BIG AWARD’ in my field. I just keep plugging away.

The beauty of this particular program is that these things don’t really matter that much. The cohort is a real mix of career stages, from ECRs to professors that run their own labs. 

The thing we all have in common is the desire and willingness to change things.

A (lucky) change of heart

The experience has transformed me. I have been completely blown away by this network of exceptional, intelligent, supportive women doing amazing things for science. 

It’s about much more than media training (though that has been fantastic). I feel like I have tools and strategies to do things I couldn’t really think about doing before. I’m no longer afraid to put my hand up and say ‘Hey, I know the answer to that’. I’m happy to pitch an idea to an organisation, politician, or media outlet and say ‘This is something really important that you need to talk about/change/promote’. 

Mostly, it’s taught me to start acting like I belong in STEM, instead of like I snuck in through the side door and am waiting to get kicked out at any minute. 

Don’t sell yourself short

If you’ve ever hesitated to give yourself an opportunity, not applied for an award, or turned down a chance to develop your own skills, I’m begging you to take a good hard look at what’s holding you back. You might have *very good and logical reasons*. Or it might just be time to let go of a narrative that no longer serves you. 

If the Superstars of STEM program is on your radar, applications close this Friday 14th (the form is short and to the point – do it). https://scienceandtechnologyaustralia.org.au/what-we-do/superstars-of-stem/applicant-info/

2 comments on “Why I was never going to apply for a program called “Superstars of STEM” – and why I did anyway

  1. bernie hobbs

    Go Kylie!
    “Growing up, the worst thing a girl could do was TRY to get attention…
    The second worst thing was to KNOW you were good at something.”
    Those two “rules” are still so hardwired in my brain today – maybe I should have applied for Superstars instead of being a mentor!
    I’m so happy that the program is still bringing women in STEM together and helping you all occupy your space and move the system – or at least give it a good shake.
    Owning your expertise and sharing your knowledge without apology or permission is the best kind of superpower – don’t wait until middle age to discover it!
    Thanks for your as always thoughtful, human and humorous writing.
    bernie hobbs


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