Women and girls in STEM: Kiowa Scott-Hurley

Kiowa Scott-Hurley shares her experiences with art, coding, supercomputing and navigating the STEM workplace as a queer Aboriginal woman with a chronic illness.

AI and supercomputing expert Kiowa Scott-Hurley wasn’t always a fan of STEM. 

‘In high school my main interests were history, literature, poetry and art,’ says Kiowa, a proud Djadja Wurrung woman. ‘Doing well in these areas requires communication skills, research skills, and critical and creative thinking to generate new ideas. But towards the end of high school, I realised maths also needed those skills and fell in love with it!’

Photo of Kiowa Scott-Hurley holding a walking stick and standing in the foyer of an office building

Kiowa Scott-Hurley. Image credit: Alex Orme Photography | ATSE

This love of both arts and science led Kiowa to major in philosophy and pure maths at university. But she still had absolutely no interest in computers or programming. That changed in her second year at uni, when she met a mentor who was working in scientific computing at the CSIRO. 

‘He encouraged me to apply for a cadetship on his team to work full-time for 12 weeks a year while studying,’ Kiowa says. ‘When I applied it was almost as a joke – why would they hire someone with no coding skills?’

But Kiowa got the cadetship and soon picked up Python and C++ programming to implement encryption algorithms. ‘I also learned some basic machine learning skills and how to use a supercomputer, she says. ‘I got to present some of my work at conferences, where I met some folks from the Monash eResearch Centre (MeRC).’

MeRC was looking for someone with machine learning and supercomputing skills, so Kiowa started working there in 2020 after she graduated. A couple of years later she moved to the Defence Science and Technology Group, where she works as a Digital Science Migration Engineer.

‘My job is to support science with computers,’ Kiowa says. ‘Every scientist uses computers, but not every scientist has the time to become a computing expert, especially if they spend most of their time in a lab doing experiments. That’s where I come in – to help them make the most of the computers they have available to them.’

‘Some problems are easy to solve – maybe we train a scientist how to use a supercomputer and then they continue their research without any extra help. Sometimes our scientists find never-before-seen-challenges and we need to create new solutions, or do lots of reading, research and analysis to support them. Sometimes we spend months working with researchers on a single problem!’

The work demands people skills and creativity as well as coding expertise. ‘When I started working with technology, I thought it meant working with computers, code and screens,’ Kiowa says. ‘But it revolves entirely around how I can use technology to help people with creative new ideas.

‘I work with scientists across domains, so I get to learn about things like x-ray imaging or astronomy, as well as interesting new technologies, especially in machine learning.’

The impact of unintended bias

Kiowa Scott-Hurley sitting at a desk coding on a desktop computer

Kiowa at work during her CSIRO cadetship

Kiowa belongs to several groups that are underrepresented in STEM. ‘I’m a queer Aboriginal woman with a chronic illness,’ she says. ‘I also grew up in a regional area in a low-socioeconomic family.’

‘Not all these things are “visible” and not all of them impact me equally. But I think belonging to these groups means I’m very aware of how we unintentionally exclude folks at work. That could be by assuming co-workers are in heterosexual relationships, using male pronouns when we talk about a technologist, or assuming that everyone can see and hear the world around them.’

For Kiowa, these unconscious biases in the workplaces can lead to experiences that imply she doesn’t belong.

‘Often I’m the only woman in a meeting, and people assume I’m there as a non-technical person. I’ve been apologised to for discussions getting “too technical and boring me”,’ she says. ‘And I’ve experienced the unintentional use of racist slurs or offensive comments about “not acting like an Aboriginal person.”’

‘I’ve also struggled to explain that my walking stick doesn’t mean I don’t want to join in on activities – it’s to make sure I can join in! Because I’m a young person, people assume the mobility aid is for a short-term injury, which leads to some awkward explanations when they ask about it.’

‘At the end of the day, being underrepresented means you will have experiences that not many others have had before. That means you can advocate for positive change, but also means you spend time thinking about those problems instead of the STEM you’ve been hired to do.’

Improving and navigating the STEM workplace

Kiowa points out that there is a lot of scientifically backed research on improving workplace inclusion and diversity. ‘The work has been done on finding solutions,’ she says. ‘They just need to be implemented.’

Some of Kiowa’s top tips for organisations are:

  • ‘Consider what type applicants your job ads will attract. Ads that laud fast-paced environments and aggressive growth are unlikely to appeal to applicants who need flexibility, like carers, folks with chronic illnesses or neurodivergent people.’
  • Offer flexible working conditions to everyone and build a culture that means staff feel like they can access them. ‘At DSTG, I don’t hesitate to request leave or adjust my hours for appointments. I notice a lot of male colleagues accessing parental leave and people working part-time hours. And we get weekly emails on how to access counselling and support. Many workplaces offer these arrangements on paper, but flexible conditions need to be genuinely supported across all levels of the organisation for it to have an impact.’
  • ‘Listen. Open a two-way dialogue by talking to your staff and acting on their advice. Sometimes it’s as simple as using they/them pronouns by default or changing words like “blacklist” to “denylist”.’ 

Kiowa highlights the importance of targeted funding to help underrepresented groups in STEM – she recently started a Master of Cybersecurity thanks to an ATSE Elevate scholarship. ‘I’d always worried about my career being stunted by my lack of postgraduate study,’ she says. ‘But I also worried that returning to study would be harmful in its own ways. Having financial and community support through the Elevate program, in tandem with the support I have in my current workplace, has been game changing for me.’

Good mentors and support networks are also essential. ‘I’ve been lucky enough to have some excellent, supportive supervisors,’ Kiowa says. ‘I’ve also developed networks of diverse folks and allies in STEM. Underrepresented people often find brand new challenges, and having a network means you can find out how others have handled similar challenges or check if your experience is normal. These networks have opened my eyes to the challenges others face.’  
Self-care is also essential. ‘If you’re underrepresented, you’re going to be a trailblazer, carving out room for people like you in environments which have never considered you. It can be a taxing way to navigate the workforce,’ Kiowa says. ‘Unpaid labour is also expected in most academic STEM roles, and these 2 things are a recipe for burnout.’

‘So it’s important to carve out spaces where you can be successful that have nothing to do with work. Find a hobby like sport, art, baking or working on cars. Spend time with your friends and family. There are many ways we can bring value to the world which have nothing to do with STEM.’

Line drawing of Kiowa typing on a keyboard. A thought bubble with 3 question marks appears beside her head.

Self portrait. Image credit: Kiowa Scott-Hurley