As an astrophysicist, I’m used to being the only woman in the room.
I’ve participated in, or witnessed so many initiatives that aim to teach people how to navigate a broken system, rather than fixing the problem. One particularly absurd initiative involved teaching women to play golf so they could be part of the old boys’ network.
This is the exact problem we are trying to solve. We don’t need everyone to be like men. We need to overhaul outdated societal expectations and fix the structural problems to achieve equity in STEM (STEM is an acronym for the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
A huge number of people experience barriers when it comes to STEM. A five-year study of STEM graduates from the year 2011 found that by 2016, only 1 in 10 STEM-qualified women worked in a STEM industry, compared with more than 1 in 5 STEM-qualified men.
This is not surprising when we consider the gendered roles enforced by society. Harmful workplace culture, poor access to affordable childcare, the gender pay gap, and a lack of flexible work arrangements prevent women’s full participation in our workforce.
It’s important to add that gender is only one characteristic associated with under-representation in the STEM workforce, and a lack of action to support these cohorts is holding us back. Profound system-wide change is necessary to create truly safe and inclusive workplaces that ensure full participation in Australia’s STEM workforce.
But it’s not all bad news. Equity in science, technology, engineering and maths is improving – but slowly, according to the Australia government’s STEM Equity Monitor. Between 2020 and 2021 the proportion of women in STEM-qualified jobs grew by two percentage points to 15 per cent. And 37 per cent of STEM university enrolments are women, up three points.
Why is it important that we have women in STEM roles? Future careers in all sectors will rely heavily on STEM skills. But a lack of diversity means we have a limited workforce, and it’s missing a broad range of perspectives. You can’t create, build and implement solutions that benefit everybody if the people creating, building and implementing all look and think the same.
So how can we speed this up and/or make sure women stay in STEM roles? Essentially, we need rigorous and well-resourced initiatives to reduce barriers to workforce participation. We need to know which of the hundreds of STEM equity programs across Australia are making a difference.
That’s why we’ve created the STEM Equity Evaluation Portal, to enable everyone involved in STEM equity programs to assess and share what works and what doesn’t, helping other programs around the country.
The free evaluation tool, created by researcher, science communicator and educator Dr Isabelle Kingsley, will help people assess their programs and share their findings, helping programs improve and scale-up, generating useful data, and helping other equity, diversity and inclusion programs around the country.
Visit the Portal at: evaluation.womeninstem.org.au.
Picture at top: Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith. Photo: Supplied
Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith is an astrophysicist, author, and the Australian Government’s Women in STEM Ambassador In her role as Women in STEM Ambassador, Professor Harvey-Smith is responsible for mobilising Australia’s business leaders, educators and policymakers to increase the participation of women and girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) studies and careers.