Improved access to STEM vital for women

To help more women break into typically male dominated professions and tackle the gender pay gap, women need improved access to STEM skills, according to speakers at a CEDA WA Women in Leadership event.

Addressing the event on STEM skills and business, WA Minister for Water; Fisheries; Forestry; Innovation and ICT; and Science, the Hon. Dave Kelly said, “we know that the fastest growing jobs, the jobs that are most well paid in our economy, if they don’t already require STEM skills they will in the future.”

“But across the Australian workforce of all the STEM qualified people in Australia only 16 per cent of them are women – 16 per cent. That’s an incredibly low figure,” Mr Kelly said.

He said women must be given the same STEM opportunities as men.

“If we’re going to give women the opportunity to break into those traditionally male dominated areas, which are traditionally better paid, then we have to do something about ensuring that women have access to STEM skills at least in the same degree as men.”

Mr Kelly outlined the WA Government’s first STEM skills strategy that includes a $3.3 million State Budget commitment, announced in May, to boost the number of West Australians doing STEM.

He said the STEM strategy would address gender and social equity, noting there is a direct relationship between affluence and access to STEM skills.

Mr Kelly said the government could do its bit but other organisations need to develop their own STEM skills plans.

“Every organisation whether you’re a government department or private sector agency, if you want more women to have access to STEM skills and a career in STEM, you have to have a plan to do it because it will not happen, or it will not happen fast enough, if you just leave it to business as usual,” he said.

SCITECH Chief Executive Officer Deb Hancock said businesses must embrace STEM skills in the workplace.
She said changing community demographics and changing behaviours in response to new digital platforms have implications for the future of work.

“Like never before in our history the pace of technological change is so fast, so extensive and so disruptive,” she said.

Ms Hancock noted a PwC report that found 75 per cent of the fastest growing jobs require STEM.
“People without STEM skills will be locked out of three-quarters of the fastest growing jobs in our future,” she said. 

“As leaders we all have a responsibility to work together and do our very best to ensure equity of access to the development of these very skills. Why? Because if we don’t we will see a widening of the gap between the haves and the have nots in our community,” Ms Hancock said.

Telethon Kids Institute Head, Health Promotion and Education Research and CoLab Director, Professor Donna Cross described a number of factors she believes can attract young people, particularly women, to STEM and keep them there.

“Some of the best things that can happen in science is for the built environment to provide a place where people of lots of different disciplines can come together and look for the interesting questions that fall between the gaps,” Professor Cross said.

She said the lone researcher is no longer relevant and future innovation will see people working highly collaboratively.

More attention should be paid to early and mid-career researchers to avoid them dropping out, Professor Cross said.

Avoiding having too many stars and valuing everyone’s work, good mentorship, support during down times, a family friendly environment and sufficient funding to make a difference were all important factors in attracting people to STEM, she said.

Edith Cowan University Vice-Chancellor Professor Steve Chapman outlined measures taken by the university to encourage women in STEM.

He said initiatives under the Athena SWAN Advancement Scheme were leading to cultural transformation.

“What I learned really quickly was, particularly for female staff, because female staff are the primary carers usually, that there were lots of basic practical things that needed to be done really quickly that could give us really good effects, especially where caring for children were considered,” Professor Chapman said.

“If you want to change culture, and that’s what it’s about, you need to have the resources to be able to do that and invest in initiatives.”

He said change required adequate reporting systems, improved recruitment strategies and an aggressive gender equality strategy that people knew was in place and was clearly backed by the leadership team.

Following feedback from women staff and students on impediments to their work in STEM, the university had introduced parenting rooms, carer parking bays and mandatory training in unconscious bias for anyone wishing to be on an interview panel.

Further, he said, ECU was monitoring progress to avoid slippages. This would involve a good staff survey to evaluate programs and revise them if they don’t work. Leaders are held accountable through KPIs that have real teeth.

He said any program aimed at increasing female participation in STEM required male champions of change to communicate to other men what is and isn’t acceptable.