Catherine Hamlin: Inspiring Girls in STEM for Generations

Awareness of the need to increase the representation and advocacy of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) has grown over the past decade. The push to encourage women into studying and pursuing careers in STEM fields is the result of the significant gender inequities found in those fields. One of the best ways to empower women and girls in STEM is to show them women just like them who have thrived in STEM fields. Dr Catherine Hamlin is, for thousands, that female STEM icon.

Catherine Hamlin, a girl in STEM, an icon

Catherine’s pioneering work was not just limited to inventing an improved technique for obstetric fistula repair surgery. Through education, advocacy and love, Catherine uplifted women and girls in Ethiopia, pioneering a whole-person approach to fistula treatment and care.

At the time that Catherine was coming of age, opportunities for girls and young women were quite limited. It was a time that denied opportunities for girls in most facets of life – especially for girls in STEM. In the 1940s and 1950s, social attitudes, education and patterns of paid employment reinforced the idea that a woman’s place was in the home. Women were denied opportunities in the workplace and often discriminated. Society assumed that men were required to look after women’s interests.

Despite these restrictions, Catherine broke through gender expectations and was determined to become a medical professional. She graduated in 1946 with MBBS/MD from the University of Sydney, only seven years after the university’s first woman medical graduate. At that time, women made up only 12% of medical degree enrolments in Australian universities. Catherine and her husband Reg Hamlin’s decision to move to Ethiopia to set up a midwifery school was far ahead of their time.

Inspiring future generations

Olivia is one of the many young women inspired by Catherine’s legacy. An active member of the Coogee Girl Guides, Olivia wants to be a biomedical engineer when she grows up.

“I first heard about Catherine earlier last year, right after she died. I was coming home from school and heard it on the radio. I also heard about the new book that was released about her,” recalls Olivia, a 15-year-old from Sydney.

Olivia’s life goals are motivated by her personal experience: “I’ve got hearing loss and I found Cochlear implants interesting – [the idea of] making devices that doctors can put in your body to help you.”

Along the way, she has been inspired by the actions of another woman who helped make people better: Catherine Hamlin. For Olivia, Catherine’s determination was inspirational – and she wanted to learn more. “I started some research and felt pretty inspired; it was really cool how she just went to Ethiopia and set up a whole hospital to treat fistulas,” says Olivia.

After listening to podcasts and looking online, Olivia spoke about Catherine’s pioneering work as an obstetrician-gynaecologist to the Australian Women’s Weekly for an article spotlighting the Girl Guides. Catherine’s impact on many girls in STEM has inspired young women to become doctors, nurses, engineers and much more.

Just like millions of girls around the world, Olivia believes that her gender should not be a barrier in the opportunities she gets, and that having women in positions of leadership is vital to achieving better outcomes for women and girls. “We make up half of the world’s population, and women have special needs compared to men; so if only men are in those positions then it’s quite patriarchal and it’s not going to cater to our needs.”

Olivia’s advice for other girls in STEM? “Take every opportunity that you get … so often we’re scared of failure. If you really want something, you should go for it!”

Watch the Girl Guides video here

Click here to learn more about Catherine Hamlin’s pioneering work.

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