Chief scientist Cathy Foley on how to tackle Australia’s tech talent shortage

chief scientist

Dr Cathy Foley, Australia's Chief Scientist. Source: supplied.

Australia is facing a skills shortage in the STEM sector, and encouraging diversity in the field could make a start towards addressing it.

That’s according to Australia’s chief scientist Dr Cathy Foley, who highlighted some key barriers to diversity in the sector, and how we can overcome them.

Speaking at the Institute of Public Administration Australia, Foley noted that Australia is facing a considerable skills shortage in general, but particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

This is particularly pertinent while international borders remain closed, she noted, restricting access to skilled migrants.

“When your country is building its future on high-tech, STEM-related industries, that’s a problem,” she said.

One way to start closing this talent gap is to encourage more diversity in the tech sector — starting by encouraging more women to join the fold.

Foley highlighted two key points at which women face additional barriers to careers in STEM, which are ultimately hampering the economic impact of this sector.

First, women in tech and research careers have highlighted a lack of support for flexible or part-time work, as well as little tolerance for non-linear career paths.

She called for the industry to tackle “structural issues” that mean careers can stall when a woman takes a period of time off, whether that’s for parental leave or other reasons.

“We must remember that our caregiving structures are in transition,” she said.

“There are so many parenting combinations and our career expectations have to change for everyone, including men.”

How to prevent ‘brain drain’

This would help keep women in STEM roles at the early stage of their careers, Foley said.

However, the second major barrier comes at a later stage, with women leaving the field in their 50s and 60s.

There is an element of age discrimination, she said. For women, there’s an extra challenge of menopause — still a taboo topic even today.

“The system doesn’t always support this phase of women’s lives,” she said.

Foley noted there is a lack of research on the effect of menopause on women’s careers in Australia. However, she said in the UK more than 1 million women have reported leaving their jobs because of their symptoms.

“We can be sure these same things are happening in Australia, and women are leaving work because of it. I don’t know to what extent.”

This is the point in their careers they should be acting as “trailblazers and role models”, she said.

It means we have less women in the pool of senior leaders in STEM subjects, and fewer skilled and experienced workers in the market.

It’s a matter of equity, Foley said. But equally, “it is about our nation’s future and our nation’s prosperity”.

It takes time to get a pipeline of skilled workers trained up in STEM subjects, she noted.

When it comes to addressing the skills shortage, “the older workforce provides one of the solutions and we should be using it.”

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