The low numbers of women in STEM occupations is “a national emergency”, according to the chairman of Industry Innovation and Science Australia Andrew Stevens, who is also a member of Champions of Change, a group of CEOs and company directors working to achieve gender equality.
“We have a long way to go in STEM and many sectors of the economy are moving substantially faster,” Mr Stevens said.
His advice is to engage those with the power within an organisation to change the processes that stand in the way of women achieving equal opportunity.
Recruitment, promotion, and pay rise processes, along with all of the normal HR processes, need to be changed to create an equality-based environment for women.
“We’ve got to disrupt the processes,” said Mr Stevens, speaking to InnovationAus chief executive and publisher Corrie McLeod, off the back of the Paddl Accelerator and National Innovation Games, which is sponsored by Western Sydney University.
A focus on dramatically increasing the size of the STEM talent pool is another way to address the problem, according to Paddl co-founder and chief executive Dominique Fisher.
“It’s time to stop framing the issue as either a male or a female problem,” Ms Fisher said. “If we as a nation don’t increase the talent pool, we can forget about a lot of our goals.”
“If we focus on growing STEM participants, the easiest way to double the size is to actually have an inclusive view about how we’re going to engage women,” she said.
“But, if it was just a matter of fixing a HR system or having 50 per cent of all roles that have to be filled by women, it would be easier. There seem to be deep issues in the pipeline, which literally starts in five-year-olds and goes all the way through.”
For Ms Fisher, influencing women to take a pathway into STEM starts in school, by encouraging girls to take science or other STEM-related subjects.
It’s ensuring they’re not put off by what their peers choose, at a time when peer influence is high, by showing how science and technology is the basis of many things. “Let’s find STEM applications, such as in beauty, sports and the things they love doing so that it’s relevant to them,” she said.
Even at university, young women may face projects or learning situations related to topics such as vehicle engineering, they may not be familiar with that can undermine their confidence.
“When they go to university, this is when confidence kicks in,” she said.
Once in the workforce, the impact of women having families, whether it’s taking a significant amount of time away from the workforce or preferring to work part-time, can’t be ignored in the quest to achieve women’s equality, according to Ms Fisher.
“How do we accommodate that in a way which isn’t just about HR processes and so on, but is actually rethinking flexibility at work,” she said.
When it comes to the workplace, women’s under-representation creates a capability problem in STEM that is applied across the economy, according to Mr Stevens. “And, we can’t afford to turn off that proportion of our capability and talent,” he said.
The conventional power structures effectively act to underrepresent women while over-representing men.
“The tone of gender equality is influenced by this power balance in leadership, so that a balanced representation of women in leadership creates a totally different environment,” Mr Stevens said.
“Whether it’s architecture, engineering, property or banking – it doesn’t matter what sector – the same dynamic applies in that representation of women in senior leadership positions creates a different outcome and helps overcomes the barriers,” he said.
“However, today unfortunately, we don’t see that balance in very significant proportions to overcome it.”
To achieve equality, there must be a way to create incentives for women and to engage them in a way that makes them want to walk through the door into a career in STEM and not be put off by these barriers, according to Ms Fisher.
“But, at the moment, it’s not seen as a very attractive place for all these reasons,” she said.
To hear more about women in STEM, tune into See What You Can Be, a series of interactive webinars championing Australia’s extraordinary female changemakers who are blazing new pathways across the STEM sector.
InnovationAus was the media partner for the Paddl Impact Accelerator Program ‘Achieving Diversity in STEM’ and Western National Innovation Games.