Hostile workplace culture and a lack of day-to-day flexibility are the leading reasons why women leave their jobs in STEM, according to a new study by the University of South Australia.
The study was conducted to explore the lived experiences of women and non-binary people working in STEM in a bid to understand the “drivers of this imbalance”.
The research, released on Monday, notes that despite “concerted investment by both industry and government” into equity in STEM programs it has been “next to impossible” to assess the impact of such programs on an individual level to date.
“There are… hundreds of ‘Women in STEM’ programs operating in Australia, and as many as 204 such programs operating in South Australia. The impact of these programs is, at best, unclear,” the South Australian Academy for Gender Equity in STEM study said.
“At the macro level, we have seen an increase in women’s participation in STEM education in schools and though into undergraduate education. Any gains from there into graduate education, career, and senior career, however, have been modest.”
For the study, a series of roundtables attended by 75 participants were held in Adelaide, Mount Gambier and Whyalla over the last 12 months to source the views of both those working in STEM, as well as school and university students wanting to pursue a career.
The roundtables overwhelmingly identified culture as the “biggest drivers of gender inequality” for current employees, followed by unconscious bias – within and outside the workplace – and inflexible work hours as the biggest obstacles.
“Unsupportive or hostile culture was consistently mentioned during the think tanks as a major barrier to women in the workplace and was often reported as a cause for women leaving a job,” the report said.
The report has recommended policies to promote workplace flexibility for all employees regardless of gender, in part to encourage greater participation in unpaid care work by men – which in itself would help shift the dial on “societal stereotypes and messaging”.
For future employees, the external culture and stereotypes were identified as the major barriers. Mentoring and network building programs, including for young entrepreneurs, are among the support mechanisms recommended.
The report also recommends subsidising professional development and outreach activities, to incentivise women to take on leadership roles, as well as regular training gender awareness equity training for those in leadership roles.
“STEM is a growth sector. That women and people of non-binary gender are not accessing, or are unable to access, this sector at a similar rate to men presents obvious equity issues in the short and long-term,” the study said.
“On the other side of this equation, the STEM industry across Australia is already struggling to fulfill its workforce needs; a challenge that is greatly exacerbated by its inability to recruit from the entire population.”
University of South Australia researcher Dr Deborah Davis, the report’s lead author, said feedback from participants demonstrates that achieving genera equity in the STEM workforce remains some way off.
“These obstacles raised by women working in the sector should be a red flag as they continue to exacerbate critical STEM industry workforce shortages across the country,” she said in a statement accompanying the study.
Despite the hundreds of programs aimed at fostering diversity in STEM, Dr Davis also said the impact of such programs is “unclear”, with the increasing interest of young women in STEM not converting to workplace participation.
“We have seen a significant increase in girls studying STEM subjects in schools and undergraduate degrees, but only a small increase in postgraduate programs and young women pursuing STEM careers,” she said.
The federal government is currently accepting submission to its review of Women in STEM programs. The review, announced last September, intends to identify barriers faced by underrepresented groups.
Last month, independent panel chair and Cicada Innovation chief executive Sally-Ann Williams told InnovationAus.com that the “complex challenge” would require a systemic, collaborative solution to effect real change.
“We need to have an approach that looks at the entire system and can make recommendations for things for government to do and act on, things for industry to do and act on, and things for community to do and act on,” she said in March.
According to the review’s terms of reference, Women make up 16 per cent of people with STEM qualifications. Of First Nations people, only 0.5 per cent hold university-level STEM qualifications.
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