Australia day speech is not just about feminised physics

Professor Michelle Simmons gave an inspirational Australia Day address yesterday. A leading scientist giving the speech, is a great thing; how it has been reported, not so much.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported it with the headline “Australia Day Address orator Michelle Simmons horrified at ‘feminised’ physics curriculum”, The Daily Telegraph has “Top scientist Professor Michelle Simmons uses Oz Day address to rail against ‘feminised’ school curriculum”. It’s pretty much impossible to find reporting that doesn’t focus on the ‘feminised’ school curriculum comment.

While there’s some truth in those headlines, they do a disservice to an inspirational speech. There is one paragraph in her speech which deals with the bit that has grabbed the editors’ attention:

One of the few things that horrified me when I arrived in Australia was to discover that, several years ago the high school physics curriculum was “feminised”. In other words, to make it more appealing to girls, our curricula designers in the bureaucracy substituted formulae with essays! What a disaster. From the students coming to university, I see little evidence that this has made any difference and indeed I see many students complaining that the physics curriculum has left them ill equipped for university.

Now her point, it seems to me is really nothing to do with the unfortunate word-choice of ‘feminised’. In fact I’m not convinced she’s even right, the curriculum was generalised and turned away from maths to attract any students not just girls. But in any case, the point is, summed up in the next paragraph, that we should not be making education easier to attract students:

When we reduce the quality of education that anyone receives, we reduce the expectations we have of them. If we want young people to be the best they can be (at anything) we must set the bar high and tell them we expect them to jump over it. My strong belief is that we need to be teaching all students – girls and boys – to have high expectations of themselves.

If there’s really a core message in Prof Simmons speech it is that we should tackle hard things, we shouldn’t take the easy road and give up. Hanging her speech around the generalisation of physics and the word ‘feminised’ really misses all the great and good points she is making.

Here are the things – the things that point out what a great country is for science – that should have featured in the headlines:

“I think Australia is a great place to be for anyone interested in scientific discovery and innovation.”

“Australia offers a culture of academic freedom, openness to ideas, and an amazing willingness to pursue goals that are ambitious. And the results speak for themselves – we have achieved tremendous success in our endeavour, largely because we gave things a go that the rest of the world didn’t dare to try…”

“We are the world leaders in [industrial compatible silicon material], where Australia has established a unique approach with a globally competitive edge that has been described by our US funding agencies as having a two- to three-year lead over the rest of the world.”

“…I ended up doing physics outside of school, and it took me a while to catch up. The lesson I learnt was you can always do the things you enjoy and find easy outside of work. However, problem solving and technical skills require consistent effort and are not so easy to pick up at any time in life. For me – it was better to do the things that have the greatest reward. Things that are hard – not easy. And things that will continue to challenge you throughout your life.”

“Our country has established centres of excellence that are the envy of scientists across the globe, in areas like robotic vision, astronomy, big data, gravitational wave discovery, brain function, ageing and ecology.”

” In Australia, when praising ourselves, even on occasions like this one, we tend to emphasise the beauty of our natural environment, our great lifestyle, and the easy-going nature of our people. The lucky country. I think this is a mistake, because it doesn’t acknowledge the hard work that people have done to be successful and it encourages us to shy away from difficult challenges. In short, I believe it will eventually stop us from being as ambitious as we might be.”

“I am grateful for that Australian spirit to give things ago, and our enduring sense of possibility. In this, we have so much to be thankful for – and, more importantly, so much to look forward to. But there is room for improvement as well. In our innovation policies, in our education system, and in the ambitions of our scientists and discoverers, I want Australians above all to be known as people who do the hard things.”

Maybe one of those hard things would have been for the papers to come up with a headline that really reflects the positive points Professor Simmons was making.

You can watch, listen to, or read the full speech here.

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