Indigenous boost through Women in STEM grants

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Joseph Brookes

Eight organisations have shared in nearly $2 million in federal funding as part of the federal government’s Women in STEM and entrepreneurship program, including three initiatives encouraging young indigenous women to consider STEM careers.

CSIRO, University of Canberra, charities and private organisations will receive grants around $250,00 each, with more funding expected to be released for the initiatives at a later date.

The announcement of the grants on Friday follows a warning from Australia’s chief scientist that Australia is not catching up to the growth opportunities in some STEM areas, and too few young people are studying STEM subjects in high school.

The government’s ongoing Women In STEM and Entrepreneurship (WISE) program, first announced in 2017 as part of the National Innovation and Science Agenda, has a commitment of a modest $14 million over ten years.

STEM boost: The Women in STEM program has targeted indigenous programs

So far the program has provided $9.95 million in funding to projects across every state and territory, according to the federal government.

The third and latest round totals nearly $2 million in grants for eight organisations to improve the representation of women in STEM.

“STEM is the key to unlocking our future. From manufacturing to medicines, construction to computing; all of it relies on a cutting edge STEM workforce,” Industry, Science and Technology Minister Christian Porter said in a statement.

“By increasing participation from women and girls, including those in traditionally underrepresented groups, we are powering up Australia’s ability to stay at the forefront of new discoveries, breakthrough technologies, and global progress.”

The CSIRO received nearly $250,000 to provide training to indigenous women and rangers to use data and artificial intelligence in land management in Queensland. Sydney based Food Futures Company received $250,000 for projects aimed at reducing barriers to indigenous women in the the native agriculture and food sector.

Young Change Agents Limited received the same amount to deliver design-focused entrepreneurial workshops to 600 Indigenous girls and young women in Western Australia, the Northern Territory, New South Wales and Queensland.

Other organisations to receive grants in the latest round are Engineers Without Borders, Robogals, The Creative Co-operation, University of Canberra, and Workforce Plus.

In last month’s budget the government set aside $42 million over seven years for women in STEM programs, following warnings of “glacial” progress on diversity and shortages of local talent. But it was one of the few STEM bright spots in the budget, according to a leading industry group.

Australia’s previous chief scientist Dr Alan Finkel released a report last year that showed 16 per cent of Australia’s labour force had a formal STEM qualification. They worked widely across the economy and typically commanded higher salaries, according to the report.

But certain groups including women and Indigenous people were shown to be underrepresented in STEM, and the overall share of the labour force has not increased in Australia.

Australia’s current chief scientist Dr Cathy Foley last week said there are no plans to update the report, which was largely based on 2016 census data, but reiterated the need to boost STEM students.

“It’s an issue that we don’t have enough of our young people doing maths and science in the last years of high school,” Dr Foley told Senate Estimates on Thursday.

Dr Foley said students considering STEM studies often do not see the career possibilities as clearly as other professions, which was holding back tertiary and vocational enrolments.

“The ideas of scientists and engineers are often not quite so clear. And so therefore, they’re not necessarily encouraged as jobs in the future. Because they think the academic pathway is the only pathway,” Dr Foley said.

“I think one of the things we need to do is look at showing the broad range of opportunities where jobs are, especially where high skilled jobs are, and we make sure that we have clarity and transparency in information available. So that those going through school see that their opportunities are in areas where there are future jobs, of which STEM is the basis for it.”

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