WEHI celebrates International Women’s Day 2024

08 March 2024
International Women's Day 2024

WEHI welcomed accomplished IT expert, AI specialist, and 2023 Victorian Multicultural Honour Roll honouree Dr Ruwangi Fernando to deliver the 2024 International Women’s Day address.

Dr Fernando’s presentation “Embracing Diversity in STEM: A Pathway to Innovation and Inclusivity in Australia” highlighted how cultural bias impacts the employment experience women of colour in Australia.

Dr Fernando is a passionate advocate for gender equity whose work focusses on the intersectional challenges faced by women of colour in STEM.

She’s the founder of STEM Sisters, a pioneer organisation that delivers six unique programs aiming to break down systemic barriers and promote equal access to opportunities for women of colour.

Ruwangi also founded iSTEM Co., a talent-sourcing company that seeks to eliminate cultural bias in the hiring process for culturally and linguistically diverse job seekers.

She has been recognised for her advocacy and awarded a STEM Women Changemaker by the Australian Academy of Science and included on the Victorian Multicultural Honour Roll in 2023.

Dr Ruwangi Fernando, keynote speaker at IWD 2024
Keynote speaker Dr Ruwangi Fernando, founder of STEM Sisters and iSTEM Co..

The challenges which women of colour face in STEM

Dr Fernando illuminated the barriers which women of colour face in Australia when seeking employment in STEM. From 2006 – 2016, Ruwangi quoted a 14% unemployment rate of female Australian citizens born overseas who hold tertiary qualifications in STEM. This is in contrast to the 3% of female Australian citizens.

Noting a lack of opportunity to engage with STEM professional networks, cultural bias existing in employment and advancement opportunities, and a lack of visible women of colour role models within STEM, Ruwangi was compelled to found STEM Sisters.

Through initiatives such as mentoring, regular support group meetings, and professional and personal development workshops, Ruwangi also urges us to consider how the model of STEM Sisters can extend into our own workplaces and lives.

Sejal Kendal from WEHI introducing the 2024 IWD address
Dr Sejal Kendal, Acting Head Strategy and Planning WEHI, introduced Dr Ruwangi Fernando.

Embracing diversity in STEM

Ruwangi’s presentation offered a way forward for embracing cultural diversity in STEM, and leveraging it to enhance creativity and innovation with an organisation.

She suggested it all starts with women of colour authentically connecting with each other, and creating strong communities of support. She encouraged women of colour to speak up about their lived experiences and the issues that they face, in order to start dialogue with others.

“Speak up for yourself and your community so others understand the challenges that you face.”

To other members of the community, her advice was clear and simple.

“Be allies. Be a listener. Challenge the bias.”

Dr Emily Eriksson
Dr Emily Eriksson, Senior Research Officer in the Mueller lab moderated the Q&A session
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