Review proposes new office, advisory council for STEM diversity

Brandon How

A new central office and a council representing historically underrepresented groups should be set up by the federal government to oversee diversity in STEM initiatives, according to the draft recommendations from the Pathway to Diversity in STEM Review.

The proposed office within an existing department would work to coordinate government diversity in STEM policies in consultation with the independent council to ensure the approach is strategic and has measurable outcomes.

The new structures are one of the 19 draft recommendations from the review that will now being considered as part of a second round of public consultations over the next four weeks.

The review, which aims to support STEM participation for historically underrepresented groups including women, First Nations Australians, and people with disabilities, has been underway for much of the last year and received over 200 submissions.

Specific recommendations are also made to improve each of the government’s nine ongoing Women in STEM support (WiSTEM) initiatives.

An ACIL Allen review of the government’s WiSTEM initiatives, also released on Tuesday, found that “resourcing has not been sufficient to achieve the intended long-term outcomes”.

“There has been no overarching policy to guide the design or delivery of the initiatives and as such, they do not operate as a consistent, holistic suite,” the ACIL Allen report found.

The ACIL Allen report also found that the government’s nine existing WiSTEM initiatives have had limited reach with mid-career women, middle-management, and women from underrepresented groups.

There is also currently limited evidence available to determine whether they have effected “community-wide societal, attitudinal or cultural change”, given several programs are intended to drive “generational change”.

Cicada Innovations chief executive Sally-Ann Williams.

The Pathway to Diversity in STEM Review’s draft recommendations are grouped under four themes:

  • Improving leadership and governance to make sure efforts and initiatives are evidence-based, support all underrepresented cohorts, and are accountable for accelerating change
  • Addressing culture and community attitudes towards STEM to break stereotypes and increase visibility of career pathways for underrepresented cohorts
  • Supporting life-long learning in STEM to make sure education settings are safe, supportive, and meet diverse needs
  • Changing how STEM workplaces attract and retain underrepresented employees, including supporting and growing diversity in leadership

Industry and Science minister Ed Husic welcomed the draft recommendations on Tuesday and thanked the panel for their work so far.

“We know there is a huge amount of work to be done to boost diversity in the STEM fields. But that’s why we appointed this expert independent panel. We want them to tell us the uncomfortable truths and suggest possible ways to address this issue,” Mr Husic said.

“There is great capacity for economic growth in the STEM sector, and the panel’s report will feature potential opportunities for reform to help ensure a diverse and inclusive range of people enter STEM careers.”

Mr Husic last month flagged that the review would make for “uncomfortable” reading when it is released in full. The government’s most recent STEM equity monitor shows women make up just 15 per cent of the STEM workforce.

Independent review panel chair and Cicada Innovations chief executive Sally-Ann Williams told there is a need to ensure that diversity in STEM programs are both operating well and “not running up to structural barriers in workplaces or in organisations that prevent them from having the success that they’re driving towards”.

“[Diversity program outcomes] could likely be greater if we also dealt with some of the issues in the workplace or in other structural barriers that the programs alone can’t address because they’re outside of their remit,” she said.

Some of the systemic barriers to research careers flagged during the review’s engagement include poor job security due to relatively short research contracts, poor remuneration, and research metrics that disadvantage academics with a disability.

As such, another key recommendation is for both government and STEM-employers “to invest in programs to accelerate progress for underrepresented groups, like career development, fellowships, job customisation or mentoring”.

The panel also calls for workplace reforms such as classifying bullying, harassment and discrimination as academic misconduct, which would be grounds for the withdrawal of funding. This was initiated by the American Geophysical Union Ethics and Equity Center.

Ms Williams highlighted the need for “decades of work” to create an “inclusive STEM empowered economy”.

“Every single individual we spoke to, every single report that we’ve read, every single piece of research outlines that you need structural change and you need programmatic interventions across a sustained long term approach,” she said.

Consultation on the draft recommendations will be open until September 8 with the final report to be handed to government in the last quarter of 2023.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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