Since 2018, the Australian government has used several strategies, tools and initiatives to improve the gender balance in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
The 2018-19 budget outlined $4.5 million to improve the participation of women and girls in STEM, with initiatives including the appointment of Australia’s inaugural Women in STEM Ambassador, Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith, and establishing the STEM Equity Monitor, a national data report on girls and women in STEM.
In early May 2021, the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources released new STEM Equity Monitor data showing a small improvement in women’s participation in the STEM workforce.
Some Australians were disappointed by the results, but perhaps we are rushing to disappointment without seeing the bigger picture.
To quote Professor Harvey-Smith: “The 2021 STEM Equity Monitor shows our collective efforts over just a few years are starting to make a difference. But more change is needed if we’re going to achieve gender equity by 2030.”
The good news
In the last decade (2009-2019) there has been a 3% increase in women’s participation in STEM-qualified occupations.
The proportion of women working across all STEM-qualified industries increased from 24% in 2016 to 28% in 2020; and the proportion of key management personnel and senior managers who are women increased from 18% in 2016 to 23% in 2020.
Yet other findings are certainly disheartening.
Five years after graduating, men with a STEM qualification are almost twice as likely (1.8 times) to be working in a STEM job compared to their women peers.
And women with STEM qualifications are not all working in STEM jobs. In 2016, only one in 10 women with a STEM qualification worked in a STEM industry, while one in five men did.
Changing the mindset of a nation
The barriers to gender equity in STEM are many and complex, including gender stereotypes, discrimination, harassment and bias. Some of these barriers are about what people believe in, how they see the world and how they behave.
The challenge is to change the beliefs, values and ideas that have been part of our society and culture for centuries. It will take time and concerted, collective efforts to shift them. Importantly, small and medium businesses are part of this collective.
SMEs make up more than 99% of Australian businesses, employ 70% of the labour force, and contribute 56% of value to GDP. With such significant employment and economic contributions to the Australian economy, SMEs are well positioned to drive change and lead the nation towards a more equitable STEM workforce.
What can your organisation do?
Find the gender balance in your ecosystem
Ensure a gender-balanced presence in public and internally
Offer gender-balanced images on your company’s website, and ensure equal representation of men and women from your organisation at public-speaking events. ‘Hero’ and showcase both men and women equally in your organisation as role models.
Practice equity in recruitment and promotion
Research finds gender bias is even more common in organisations that label themselves as ‘meritocracies’. Review job descriptions and whether role requirements are outdated or if they reflect your organisation’s future needs. Place equal importance on leadership styles that do not conform with masculine attributes of leadership.
Assess the impact of your efforts
“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” This free evaluation guide will help you identify and assess the changes you can make in your organisation. The tool includes step-by-step guidance on how to develop a gender equity program that can be implemented in your company.
STEM is key to our nation’s prosperity. As a collective, we can implement practical strategies to shift the dial on women’s participation and retention in this crucial sector.