Non-binary people in STEM: Ari Moloney

University student Ari Moloney shares thoughts on science communications, self-worth and how highlighting women and non-binary people’s achievements can sometimes trivialise them.

The STEM Equity Monitor doesn’t currently include specific data about non-binary people. 

That’s because there’s not a lot of data about non-binary people in STEM available. When this data does exist, the sample size is usually small so it means the data is identifiable. We hope to be able to include this data in future.

In the meantime, we’re lucky to have people like university student Ari Moloney to share their personal experiences in STEM.

What is your chosen STEM field and what attracted you to it?

My chosen STEM fields are chemistry and science communications.

I’ve always thought chemistry was fascinating and used to love watching chemistry TED talks on the bus to school. Doing it as a subject in year 11 and 12 solidified that interest for me. I like that it’s hands on and that everything slots together in a logical way. I’m also interested in molecular gastronomy, and chemistry ties into that nicely.

As for science communications – I didn’t know it was a thing until I attended the National Youth Science Forum (NYSF) in 2021. I’d had experiences with my STEM-oriented friends struggling to convey certain concepts to people outside their areas of study. It always worried me because, to a certain extent, researching and experimenting is pointless if you can’t communicate it to others later.

There were heaps of presenters at the NYSF who were science communicators first and foremost, and hearing from them about science communication made me realise that it is something I’m interested in. I also loved English in high school, and science communication is STEM-flavoured English in a way.

In which sector do you see yourself working in the future, and why?

To be honest, I don’t know at this point. I don’t see myself working in academia, but that might change once I get a little further into university. I’m interested in all sorts of areas within chemistry and science communications, all with different sectors that they lend themselves to, but I haven’t yet had the opportunity to study them in depth.

I know there are also fields that I’d likely be interested in if I knew more about them, but it’s the sort of situation where I don’t know what I don’t know. It’s not a very satisfying answer, but it’s often the case, especially starting out in STEM careers. There are so many things out there to do.

What particular barriers do think women and non-binary people in your field face? How do you overcome these?

It’s difficult to articulate, because these barriers are often more nuanced than we say they are. On some levels, it is men being patronising, undermining you in class or at work, and speaking over you, which is a barrier in itself. But it’s also much larger than that.

Women and non-binary people’s achievements are often trivialised. There’s this desire to highlight their achievements in the media, which is well-intentioned, but it often ends up quantifying the achievements with their gender.

It’s like, ‘Look at this amazing thing this person who is specifically a woman or non-binary person in STEM has achieved!’ Then you get people asking if that achievement would have been so heavily publicised if it were a man achieving it, even when the recognition is totally deserved. By constantly highlighting success in conjunction with gender, it calls into question the validity of that success on its own merit, even when that’s not the intention.

I had my own experience with this when applying for an opportunity last year. It was a reasonably competitive application process, but I was in contact with many of the applicants through a group chat while it was happening. There were a few rounds of the process, and the first round eliminated over half of the applicants. It so happened that just over half of the people left were women or non-binary people.

I’d made it through the first round, and I was proud of myself because I’d spent hours on my application and had it double- and triple-checked by friends and peers. The gender of the successful applicants was the last thing on my mind. But in this group chat, a man who had been unsuccessful started saying that most of us had only been selected because it would make the organisation look good, and that we didn’t actually ‘deserve’ to be selected.

Even though this wasn’t the case, it made me question whether I actually did deserve the achievement, despite having previously been so proud. I had to teach myself that I was worthy of my successes regardless of my gender.

It also factored heavily into my coming out process. I’m non-binary, but because I am AFAB (assigned female at birth) and I wasn’t out in high school, I was experiencing the same thing as every other woman in STEM – my achievements came with a heavily gendered tag attached. I would hear from distant relatives about how good it was to have a female role model interested in STEM.

When I was first considering coming out, a significant part of my thought process was devoted to worrying that my achievements would be considered null and void if I was no longer that perfect female role model.

The only sustainable way to overcome these barriers on an individual level is to examine your own self-worth. I know it sounds cheesy, but there’s no way for me to magically make people stop writing about me or anyone else with a gendered lens. It’s not something one person can fix.

In the meantime, I try not to derive my worth from external praise and recognition. It’s difficult at times – getting that gratification for something you’ve worked hard on is an instant rush of good feelings. But I don’t have control over the external response. I could easily have someone – like the man I mentioned earlier – call my success into question. And if I’m basing my reaction off someone else’s, I’m always going to have that uncertainty in my self-esteem.

So I remind myself of the work I’ve done and what it took (and is still taking) to get where I am, regardless of if I succeed or fail. I know that I am a human being, and I’m young, and I’m not always going to succeed and be perfect. This helps with the more immediate barriers, but is also productive for those larger, more nuanced ones too.

Do you see yourself growing your career in Australia or overseas?

I really like to travel. So I think I see myself growing my career overseas, at least for the first part. The world is such a diverse place, and there’s so much to be learned everywhere you go. I love Australia, I love living here and I’d love to work here, but I am also eager to experience what the rest of the world has to offer.

I studied Japanese in high school and I got the opportunity to go on homestay for 3 weeks in January 2019. Those 3 weeks were some of the best of my life. So I definitely would like to work overseas if possible.