Women and girls in STEM: Cayt Rowe

Dr Cayt Rowe leads research in the Defence Science and Technology Group at the Department of Defence.

Dr Cayt Rowe leads research in the Defence Science and Technology Group (DSTG) at the Department of Defence.

Cayt helps the Australian Defence Force understand what might be required of them in the future so they can choose the best defence force design.

Her team uses simulation, wargaming and systems engineering to test different force structures and ensure that they can work together. This helps the Australian Government decide how to invest our defence budget to best assure Australia’s security.

Cayt has a PhD in statistics and a Masters in cybersecurity strategy and diplomacy. She also has a first-class honours in mechanical engineering and a science degree in applied maths and physics.

What inspired you to pursue a career in your chosen field?

The things that inspired me to get into STEM were that, when I was in high school, I really enjoyed maths. I really loved physics and chemistry. I didn't really know what I wanted to do with it, so I chose a fairly generic engineering and science field. And I basically just pursued the things that I loved, and that led me to a career in defence science. And basically the opportunities have opened up in front of me.

I've been working in STEM for about 23 years. My journey to where I am now has been quite unexpected. I definitely took a very indirect route. I never would have thought that I would be providing science to help design the future defence force. In fact, I don't think I even knew this job existed when I was quite young and certainly when I was studying mechanical engineering at university.

What excites you about the future in this field?

What excites me about the future in this field is that we are getting much better at using science to support evidence-based decision making. In the past we used to make decisions about what we invested in based on the judgment of a group of people at the top.

Now what we do is gather evidence from across the organisation, including things like war games and simulations. We run surveys, we collect actual data from operations or from across the defence organisation.

How has the career progression of women in STEM changed since you started your career? What impacts have you seen in your field?

The career opportunities for women in STEM have changed enormously since I first started in defence science. When I first joined defence science 23 years ago, I was one of very few women in the organisation.

I was on the third floor of the building I worked in, but the only women's toilet was on the ground floor in the diagonally opposite corner of the building. So I kind of planned my day around those visits!

Things have changed a lot since then, and they've certainly changed for the better. And it's really exciting now that in my workplace here it's almost 50/50. It's certainly improved the workplace. It's improved the flexibility in our thinking. The whole workplace dynamic has changed. We're accessing talent from across our whole community, which I think is a fantastic thing.

There were very few women in senior positions in my organisation when I started, and that meant there were very few role models for us junior women. And that has absolutely changed – that there are now some very inspiring, powerful women. And in fact, our Chief Defence Scientist is a wonderful woman named Tanya Monro, and she's certainly showing us that anything is possible as a woman in defence science now.

What do you think are the main barriers and opportunities for girls and women to have a career in STEM in Australia?

I think the major barriers for a woman starting a career in STEM in Australia is the cultural foundation that we have for that. It is the messaging that women get very early in their life about what being a woman means, what being a woman looks like.

For me, my father was an engineer. He laid that foundation for me that, ‘hey, this is what being a person means’ – there was no distinction for me about that being a woman. But I see that now and I see it in my daughters, that even though I'm in STEM, they still kind of think ‘that's not really what I want to do’. It's a huge cultural barrier.

Maintaining a STEM career as a mother is also really difficult. I'm very fortunate that I'm in the public service, but in academia the uncertainty of income is very, very challenging. Couple that with the challenges of parenthood and that makes it very, very difficult for women to push through and pursue a career as an academic.

On the flipside, I also think there's never been a better time to be a woman in science. That people have recognised the real strength that women bring to the workforce. That we need that diversity of perspective and we're fighting for it. That we are fighting to get women in at all levels in the organisation, and that men and women across the board are fighting for that equality everywhere.

So if there’s an opportunity to bring a woman in and make it work around her children, or whatever her particular circumstances are, people are going the extra mile to do that. We are actually recognising and valuing that strength. The sky's the limit now – those obstacles are being knocked down everywhere.

I’m not saying there’s not a long way to go, but I am so grateful for those women who have gone before, cut through the glass ceiling and shown us what we can do. Now we need to follow through and help women at all ages and stages in their careers become the great women in science that our society needs.

Why is diversity in STEM important?

STEM needs to reflect the society which it is serving, and this is incredibly true in defence science. If it doesn’t, then we might be missing the conversation around what might drive or impede different parts of Australian community to be part of the future defence force.

But we might be also missing the creativity that different perspectives bring to solving technical problems. Different cultural perspectives bring innovation in different areas.

What can inspire more girls and women to choose STEM careers?

The types of activities that I think will really inspire girls, women and all underrepresented groups to choose STEM careers is making the really cool STEM careers that are available visible to them right in the beginning when they're choosing those subjects in high school and university.

One of the programs I'm a real fan of is the Superstars of STEM program, which is getting female STEM scientists into schools talking about their careers.

What advice would you give girls and women who want to be part of the sector?

My key advice for any girls and women who are hoping to participate in STEM is go for it. There is so much cool stuff that you get to do. And personally, I think that they’re just so satisfying.

My almost default approach, which has served me really well in my career, is to have a default thing of ‘yes, I can do this’. I might say, ‘yes, I need to ask permission’, ‘yes, I need to work out transport’ or I need to work out whatever it is. But my default response to an opportunity that's offered is, ‘yes, I'll give that a go’. And that's really, really worked well for me. And that's the advice that I'd like to pass on to any young girls and women.