In the 2018 budget, the federal government committed $4.5 million to increasing participation of women and girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) studies and careers, and this week Innovation Minister Michaelia Cash announced a few slightly more specific measures.
A 10-year plan has been announced for women in science, and a ‘girls in STEM toolkit’ is being designed to help school-aged girls match their interests to STEM subjects, and realise their career opportunities.
Then, we have the placement of a women in STEM ambassador, who will be charged with advocating gender equality, making the case for change and championing women across the industry.
StartupSmart spoke to founders, VCs and influencers across the industry to find out whether $4.5 million is enough to make real change; where the funds should be focused; and who they think has it in them to be the ambassador.
Sarah Moran, co-founder and chief executive of Geek Girl Academy
Sarah Moran says it’s great to see, with so much already on the innovation agenda, that women in STEM have received further support, and she believes the mention of a 10-year plan implies there will be a long-term strategic approach.
“Gender equality is something that both sides of the government understand is an issue, so to see these initiatives go one step further is really important,” Moran tells StartupSmart.
However, Moran says it’s important to consider how to create more inclusive workplaces; there’s no point in pushing women and girls into a “pipeline that’s already broken”, she says.
No matter how many women we teach, “there are other reasons they leave”.
“We hear that question from the mouths of young girls: ‘what am I meant to do to break the glass ceiling?’”
“I have to explain to them that they’re working within a system, and you do as much as you can possibly do, but you have to forgive yourself if you can’t solve the problems all on your own, because there are bigger things at play,” she adds.
The $4.5 million is on top of what was already committed, but Moran says she doesn’t think there’s a real understanding of how much it costs to fix some of the problems.
“I felt a bit ripped off, to be honest. Add an extra zero and we might get around to solving the problem,” she says.
The government’s commitment to a women in STEM ambassador should “very much be celebrated”, Moran says, however, with regards to who it might be she has “no clue”.
She adds: “I hope it’s someone from technology though.”
“The whole reason behind the STEM revolution is about innovation, and so I think having a technologist in that role is really important.”
Nicola Hazell, SheStarts director, BlueChilli
According to Nicola Hazell, what’s important to consider when it comes to female-led startups and investment is “making sure our investment doesn’t just come in pockets”. Rather, it has to be part of a strategy.
“To create the shift required over the decades to come requires targeted effort and investment for women but also a design for diversity,” she tells StartupSmart.
When designing investment programms, we have to ask: “Is this going to be reinforcing the status quo, or investing in diversity across the ecosystem?”
And this isn’t going to be achieved by any one organisation alone.
“If we’re going to increase the number of female-led companies … we can’t just play at one point of the pipeline,” she says.
Hazell says women need support in education, in early stages, through scaling, investment stages and through to global commercialisation.
“All of those steps have barriers in place for every startup, but specifically for women,” she says.
“Working together to remove them really important.”
Hazell didn’t speculate as to who should take up the mantle of ambassador for women in STEM, but said it would be a “huge responsibility”.
“We have an incredible community of phenomenal leaders across STEM,” she says. “They will be spoilt for choice.”
She adds: “I look forward to more information coming out, and to seeing the amazing women in our community coming forward.”
However, Hazell stresses that simply bringing female startup founders into the limelight and showcasing their businesses will make a difference.
“The more people see the results and the leadership and the outcomes … the more we have the ability to actually move the needle.”
She says: “The women – all of these women who are around us every day who inspire us every day — they’re the accidental ambassadors.”
Heidi Holmes, co-founder and chief operations officer, Mentorloop
For Heidi Holmes, the government’s $4.5 million commitment “a bit disappointing, especially if they think it’s going to have the impact we want”.
“We’ve all acknowledged women in STEM does need a spotlight, and $4.5 million is an underinvestment in the opportunity,” she says.
However, Holmes points out that individual investors are already making a huge impact, and the government should focus on enabling the initiatives that are already happening, rather than coming up with new ones.
“There’s a great opportunity to actually just engage with proactive members in the women in STEM community. I’m not sure how these policies or initiatives came to fruition, but I would hope to think the government is engaging with people already,” she says.
The government’s role should be in the education sector, according to Holmes. With regards to the money being placed into changing the curriculum, she says: “I don’t know how much it would be, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be enough.”
With regards to who the women in STEM ambassador should be, Holmes doesn’t have any one person that springs to mind. Instead, she says: “I think you need a number of them … people who don’t necessarily have a profile.”
The real stories are about people in the community, having an impact in the STEM ecosystem, going about their daily business and enjoying the work they do.
“We need to spotlight people who are doing really exciting and impactful things,” she says.
Alan Jones, BlueChilli entrepreneur-in-residence and angel investor
As an influential man in Australia’s startup community, Alan Jones is firm in his belief that “there’s no gender bias to great ideas — they’re just as likely to come from women as from men.”
“The great ideas women are having, we don’t get to see them for whatever reason,” he tells StartupSmart.
Jones suggests that the current commitment to women in STEM is a ‘lean experimentation’ of sorts, on the government’s part.
If it works, they’ll consider whether to do it again at the same scale, or whether to “scale that programme up”, he suggests.
For now, Jones questions whether it will be enough.
“Is this enough money to make a meaningful difference across the economy? No.”
But it is “enough to see the government stepping outside the box”, he says.
When asked who his pick would be for the women in STEM ambassador, Jones reels of name after name (Sally-Ann Williams, Nicola Hazell, Monica Wulff, Annie Parker, Katrina Donaghy, to name a few).
There is no shortage of Australian power women, he says. “We have the people.”
But, whoever is named ambassador will have to have staff, a budget, access to cabinets at a state and federal level, and marketing.
“For that person to be effective they have to have an audience that is motivated to listen and respond,” he says.
The issue also needs to be at the forefront of the mainstream media, in order to create any meaningful cultural change.
“They need to be in the Daily Telegraph, not the Financial Review,” he says.
“It’s no longer the converted we need to preach to anymore.”
Vanessa Doake, co-founder and chief operations officer, Code Like a Girl
While Vanessa Doake says it’s great that STEM is “on the government’s radar”, she stresses that, for her, it’s all about “starting with schools and getting in front of girls as young as possible”.
Code Like a Girl exposes girls as young as five to coding, and runs school holiday ‘code camps’ for girls aged eight to 15. And Doake says they have seen a difference.
“Girls are excited, they’ve had their eyes opened to jobs and careers, and women as role models that they haven’t had access to before,” she says.
It’s important to break down the prejudices that women hold about themselves, and shift the perceptions about what they’re capable of achieving, Doake says.
“Girls as young as six are already forming views about their own intelligence,” she adds.
A women in STEM ambassador will be a well-needed role model, Doake says, however, giving just one person a public platform also has the potential to be problematic.
“If you don’t see women in positions of leadership and influence in STEM, it’s very hard to see that as an option for yourself,” she says.
“I hope the ambassador also doesn’t exclude people being able to see themselves in that. The downfall of giving one person a platform is, how do you enable all girls from all backgrounds to be able to see themselves?”
The face of STEM for women “doesn’t just look like one person,” she says. “I hope that’s thought about in the process.”
Stephanie Reuss and Victoria Stuart, co-founders, Beam Australia
According to Stephanie Reuss and Victoria Stuart, there is an issue around retention of women in STEM positions, right through to senior leadership, and this is partly due to inflexible working hours.
“If we want to make meaningful change in these areas there needs to be more genuine part-time opportunities offered or afforded to people — and not just women — to normalise part-time working,” says Stuart.
This will have a much better outcome “for the economy, and socially as well”.
Reuss suggests the challenge is around “cultural change and education”, noting that the 40-hour week was an outcome of the industrial revolution.
She says: “It’s a digital age and a different landscape that we’re operating in, but our work models haven’t changed.”
With four daughters between them, Reuss and Stuart acknowledge there is work to be done in education, and that “kids are easily influenced at a young age”.
But it’s not all about the pipeline. There are also things that can be done now.
Reuss points to “women who can do the roles right now and are only excluded from the market because they can’t work full time”.
Stuart adds there are also a lot of young entrepreneurs who have great ideas, but can’t necessarily afford to build a business.
There’s a lot to be said, she says, for giving entrepreneurs the opportunity to work part-time, giving them the opportunity to “learn to be good business people while bringing their innovative ideas to life”.
Dr. Marguerite Evans-Galea, chief executive, Women in STEMM Australia
The government’s allocation of $4.5 million is a “fantastic start”, says Dr Marguerie Evans-Galea, who says it’s important to remember that this is in the context of a broader package.
“All parties, all sides of government, strongly support women in STEM, and I would love to see any government continue that,” she says.
However, Evans-Galea says the government’s initiatives typically target new projects. “It would be fantastic to see them also supporting strong programs that are already running,” she says.
There are a lot of national initiatives “that are working”, and that have “demonstrated track records”, she says.
She adds: “We need to shift the culture and how we do science in this country … I’d love to see those kinds of initiatives supported more strongly in addition to new projects.”
Women in STEMM Australia is already trying to create role models for women in STEM with its ‘Superstars in STEM’ project. The entire objective of the project was to increase the profiles of 30 women across Australia — and to have these women be “as diverse as possible”.
“There will be never enough opportunities to profile women … we need to constantly be supporting this,” she says.
Evans-Galea agrees “there are worlds of women that would make great ambassadors”, including young people who can engage with students, mid-career executives with broad skill sets, and senior-level women who could “really engage the leadership of the country”.
Ultimately, she says, we need multiple ambassadors, “to play slightly different roles, all with the same amount of passion”.
“It has to be a team of women coming through to represent Australian science,” she says.
“That would be incredibly powerful to have.”