Gender disparity in stem careers and postgraduate enrolments reveals a system needing an overhaul.
Sobering statistics on gender disparity were released by the Office of the Chief Scientist in 2020 as part of a report on STEM-based employment. These followed the federal government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA) announcement of a $13 million investment to encourage women to choose and stick with STEM careers.
What are the issues for men and women entering STEM graduate pathways today and how can you change the game?
Note that the views expressed in this article are those of the author and should not be interpreted in any way as reflecting the views of Postgraduate Futures. See the video at the end for an alternative perspective.
On the Bright Side
The rate of increase in female STEM-qualified graduates is outstripping that of males by 6 per cent. Overall, however, women make up just 16% of STEM-qualified people, according to the Chief Scientist’s March 2016 report, Australia’s STEM Workforce.
Recognising that more needs to be done, a cohort of exceptional female and male leaders in academia and industry is developing two strategic approaches that will receive the bulk of the new NISA funding. These are the industry-led Champions of Change Coalition initiative, and the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) pilot, run the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering.
SAGE was founded by Professors Nalini Joshi and Brian Schmidt (a Nobel laureate) with a view to creating an Australian pilot of UK program the Athena SWAN Charter. Established in 2005, Athena SWAN was described by the British House of Commons as the “most comprehensive and practical scheme to improve academics’ careers by addressing gender inequity”.
Since September 2015, more than 32 organisations signed up for Australia’s SAGE pilot, which takes a data analysis approach to affect change. Organisations gather information such as the number of women and men hired, trained and promoted across various employment categories. They then analyse these figures to uncover any underlying gender inequality issues, explains Dr Susan Pond, a SAGE program leader and adjunct professor in engineering and information technologies at the University of Sydney. Finally, participating organisations develop a sustainable four-year action plan to resolve the diversity issues that emerge from the analyses.
The Bad News For Women In Stem
Women occupy fewer than one in five senior researcher positions in Australian universities and institutes, and there are almost three times as many male than female STEM graduates in the highest income bracket ($104K and above). The Australia’s STEM Workforce report found this wealth gap is not accounted for by the percentage of women with children, or by the higher proportion of females working part-time.
There are, however, some opportunities revealed by the report. While only 13% of engineering graduates are female, 35% of employees with engineering degrees are female, so a larger proportion of women engineers are finding jobs. Across all sectors, however, employment prospects for STEM-qualified women are worse than for non-STEM qualified women – a situation that’s reversed for men.
Part of the problem is that graduates view academic careers as the only outcome of a STEM degree. They aren’t being exposed to careers in industry and the corporate sector, says Dr Marguerite Evans-Galea, a former senior research leader at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute and co-founder of Women in Science Australia.
“There are so many compounding issues in the academic environment: it’s hypercompetitive, you have to be an elite athlete throughout your entire career,” she says. “This impacts women more because they are often the primary caregivers.”
An increased focus on diversity in STEM skills taught at schools, however, is changing the way women relate to careers in the field, Marguerite says. “There are opportunities for women because, with diversified training, we can realise there is a broad spectrum of careers. A PhD is an opportunity to hone your skills towards these careers.”
More flexible work arrangements and greater technical connectivity are improving conditions for women in STEM at the early-career level but, as Marguerite points out, there is still a bottleneck at the top. “I’m still justifying my career breaks to this day,” she says. “It’s something that travels throughout your entire career – and this needs to change.”
Part of the issue is the way we measure success, as well as gender disparity, on career and grant application review panels – and this won’t change overnight.
“How we define merit may be different if there are more women in the room,” Marguerite adds. “There will be a more diverse range of ideas. Collaborations and engagement with the public may be valued more, as well as your ability to be an advocate and be a role model to other women in STEM. Paired with essential high-quality research, it could provide a broader lens.”
Five Ways to Improve Outcomes for Women in Stem
1. Pay it Forward
“As a woman in STEM I feel very strongly that all of us should be helping each other. We should be creating a vibrant professional network of women in STEM who put their hands out and say, ‘How can I help you?’ These are the opportunities that are there for women in STEM.’ We’re really good at connecting and collaborating, and I would love to see us all paying it forward.” – Marguerite Evans-Galea
2. Address Unconscious Bias
“Unconscious bias training for all supervisors is essential in ensuring that managers are better equipped to identify and address gender inequalities that STEMM [STEM + medicine] postgraduates may face. The research also shows that benefits anyone who has decision-making power, such as people who sit on recruitment and promotion panels. The reasons are that understanding the existence of, and basis for, unconscious bias leads to honest self-reflection and appropriate actions to reduce it.” – Susan Pond
3. Be a Leader
“Everyone’s jumping on board with the SAGE pilot now. But it took Nalini Joshi to come out and say, ‘I want to see this happen’. Once one brave person steps up and starts that conversation, it empowers other people. It’s very scary as a woman in STEM to stand up and put yourself out there. You can be criticised very quickly and it can be detrimental to your progress. To find those like-minded leaders is important. Young people of this country look up to their mentors and say, ‘Where are all the women professors?’. There’s no one there. It can be very daunting for young people. Having someone step up and say ‘We should do something’ is really powerful.” – Marguerite Evans-Galea
4. Call it Out
“Throughout my career in STEMM – first as a junior and then as a senior academic clinician and scientist, later in the pharmaceutical industry and more recently as a company director – I have observed and experienced many instances of discrimination against women. How and why they arose always piqued my curiosity. I seemed to work my way through most of them, but it would have saved everyone a lot of time and effort if there had been more science behind overturning gender inequity on an organisation-wide basis. This would also have added significantly to my own and the organisation’s creativity and productivity.” – Susan Pond
5. Encourage Mentors
“More and more women are prepared to call out biased behaviour. It’s about giving people that permission to say: ‘I’m sorry, I don’t agree with this decision’. I would also encourage students – men and women – to help each other develop a diverse range of skills that will provide them more opportunities in terms of their careers and networking outside of academia. When young men are mentored by and interact with senior women who are highly successful, it changes their lens on gender. Finally, I’d encourage everyone to believe in themselves and strengthen their resilience– they’re going to need it in science no matter what they do – and to dream big and go for it!” – Marguerite Evans-Galea