Australian women in STEM: Underpaid and underrepresented

Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

Women make up less than a third of the Australian STEM workforce and face a gender pay gap of 22 per cent, according to a new survey of the sector, leading to calls for new strategies on participation, retention, and career advancement.

A national survey by trade union Professionals Australia asked 957 female STEM professionals about their workforce experience, revealing they are regularly underpaid, underrepresented and unsupported. The union is now calling for strategies to rebuild the STEM workforce in a more equitable way during the pandemic recovery.

Women working in STEM careers in Australia reported being underpaid under supported.

Data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency shows women working full time in the professional, scientific and technical services in Australia experience a gender pay gap of 22 per cent, higher than the average across all industries.

Nearly 40 per cent of respondents to the Professionals Australia survey said they do not receive equal compensation for equal work, while more than half reported direct discrimination because of their gender.

More than a third of women surveyed said they had been sexually harassed during their employment.

The women surveyed also reported significant barriers around working part time and taking career breaks and maternity leave, mirroring the warnings of Australia’s chief scientist Dr Cathy Foley, who last month cautioned about the barriers female STEM workers still face in Australia.

The Professionals Australia report found women represented only 29 per cent of the university-qualified STEM workforce and over one-third of the female STEM workforce surveyed, aged 25 to 35, intended to leave their profession within five years.

Most of the female STEM professionals surveyed said they felt they had to prove themselves in their work where men were assumed to be capable.

Professionals Australia chief executive Jill McCabe said the findings indicated attrition for women in the Australian STEM sector, and suggest it has been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The survey found that many women in STEM planned to leave the industry, with pay, conditions and a lack of career advancement among the top reasons for doing so. The pandemic has also created a further ‘push’ factor,” Ms McCabe said.

“This confirms that we need urgent organisational changes to ensure the retention of women in STEM fields and that increasing the number of female STEM graduates alone isn’t enough.”

Ms McCabe said the pandemic had also created a rare opportunity to address some of the barriers facing women working in STEM, including acknowledging the growing acceptance of more flexible work arrangements.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has only highlighted the crucial role our STEM professionals play in shaping public life and outcomes. It’s only fair this value is reflected in their pay and workplace conditions.”

“Urgently addressing the gender pay gap and the organisational factors behind the attrition of women from STEM fields must be part of any plan to re-build the STEM workforce for an equitable post-COVID future.”

The report calls for strategies to address the drivers of attrition that existed before COVID-19 and the ones which have been exacerbated by the pandemic, like “proper” diversity and antidiscrimination policies implemented at a systematic level.

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