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Women in STEM

Across this great nation, thousands of extraordinary and talented people dedicating their lives to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Each and every day, we see and are amazed by the work from STEM-related fields – from the design of new technology like batteries and solar panels, to discovering new species and developing treatments for diseases, as well as investigating nanotechnology uses and even teaching the next generation of inventors, entrepreneurs and scientists.

Unbelievably though, only one quarter of the STEM workforce in Australia are women. One in four IT graduates and fewer than one in ten engineering graduates are women. If we then discuss research positions in Australian universities and institutes, women occupy less than one in five senior positions.

As a woman working in the STEM fields, these statistics are not easy to digest. As the CEO of an organisation who provides training and employment services to women and other disadvantaged groups, there is obviously much more work needed. As the founder and Chair of an organisation whose mission is to promote and improve the electrical and electrotechnology industries, these facts highlight that ‘Women in Power’s’ work is desperately needed. As a member of the public, I am wanting answers. In the current climate of digital disruption and new technology, we must act now to secure the talents of women in STEM, thereby safeguarding Australia’s future economy.

The Australian government consistently inform us that they are investing $13 million over five years to encourage more women to choose and stay in STEM-related roles. The Science in Australia Gender Equity project has been expanded to include more Australian science and research institutions and new grant programmes have been advertised where government will partner with the private sector, community groups and educational organisations to foster interest in STEM and entrepreneurship amongst women and girls. Encouragingly, they have also established a ‘Male Champions of Change’ group, focused on STEM-based industries.

But I find myself asking the question: is this enough? Surely there is something we can do to help?

Throwing money at issues do not necessarily work and, in this case, grants and funding will aid in providing key initiatives, but without daily dedication to reform, we will continue to get nowhere. Systemic change is needed to address gender inequity and comprehensive reform.

From a national perspective, we need a concerted effort to overcome the cultural, institutional and organisational factors that discourage girls and women from studying STEM, and that limit their opportunities to pursue careers within the arena. We must advocate and encourage greater gender equity in STEM-based industries and organisations.

Robust and enforceable gender equity policies and practices must be developed and actioned so the number of women with STEM skills and capabilities in the broader workforce are increased. Noting that Australia’s research workforce has the greatest attrition rates between the ages of 35-45 years, most of which are women, these policies must include family-friendly strategies which will also affect men as well.

Actions that encourage gender equity and equality in STEM need to be borne by all of us. Gender equity and equality in STEM, as well as any other field, is not just a problem for women; it affects all of us, from an individual perspective to a collective community and nationally. Female innovators and entrepreneurs, known for their achievements in the STEM fields, must speak up and stand out to inspire younger generations to be involved with STEM.

An army of STEM-related professionals who can sponsor and play an active role in the careers of younger generation STEM professionals is needed. Specialists active in the STEM fields can draw on their power, networks, resources, expertise, social capital and influence which will benefit the cause far greater than a large injection of funding that may, or may not, be directed to appropriate initiatives with successful outcomes.

But that is not all that is needed for a STEM professional in today’s global environment!

Today’s researchers, inventors, professors, technicians and engineers must now not only hold their STEM qualification, they must also develop interdisciplinary cross-sector collaborations, attract industry partners, patent and translate discoveries, diversify funding portfolios, contribute to policy development and effectively communicate their research to politicians and the public.

So, not only do we have what seems to be the insurmountable task of increasing women participation in STEM, we are now being asked to create superwomen!

Scientists are confident and incredibly versatile. They are persistent in achieving their goals. They are self-motivated with a hunger for success and they are high-achievers, relentlessly reaching for the next ‘big thing’. Globally, they hold the key to our future, so boosting the workforce and talent pool from which STEM professionals are drawn is critical and central to continuing and improving the nation’s innovation and productivity.

So, this is my call to action: it is up to each and every one of us to dedicate resources to achieving equity in STEM. Understand government initiatives and how they can assist you, work with institutions and organisations who devote themselves to this issue and address these matters on a basis of justice and equity through mentoring, coaching and supporting each other.

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