Under-representation of women in STEM is holding back national prosperity

April 2 2019

Bruce Godfrey, Karen Andrews, Catherine Foley, Anna-Maria Arabia at the launch of the Women in STEM Decadal Plan

Dr Bruce Godfrey FTSE, the Academy’s Vice-President, Diversity; Minister Karen Andrews; Dr Catherine Foley FTSE, CSIRO Chief Scientist; and Anna-Maria Arabia, CE of the Australian Academy of Science at the launch of the Women in STEM Decadal Plan.

Australia has not yet made the systemic changes required to achieve diversity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), with the current under-representation and under-utilisation of women in the STEM workforce posing a threat to Australia’s prosperity.

The findings are contained in the Women in STEM Decadal Plan launched last night at Parliament House in Canberra by the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, Karen Andrews. The plan was developed by the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering in partnership with the Australian Academy of Science.

It outlines six opportunities to strengthen gender equity in STEM in Australia over the next 10 years, including establishing a national evaluation framework to guide decision-making and drive investment and effort into STEM measures that work.

Dr Bruce Godfrey FTSE, Vice-President Diversity at the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, said the plan provided the first opportunity to tackle the issue of gender equity at a national scale and highlighted the importance of government, academia, industry, the education sector and the community working together to drive change.

“If this plan and the opportunities contained within it are realised, the STEM graduates of 2030 — nine- and 10-year-olds making their way through primary school in 2019, as well as those entering the workforce from other life journeys—will join workplaces that are respectful, free of harassment and discrimination, value diversity, and structured to support a variety of STEM careers that include women in leadership positions,” Dr Godfrey said.

It’s not just an equality perspective that’s important here, it’s a business imperative

— Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith, Australia’s first ambassador for Women in STEM

Australian Academy of Science Fellow and Expert Working Group member, Professor Sue O’Reilly AM FAA, said while many organisations were taking actions at an individual level to support the attraction, retention and progression of women in STEM, extensive stakeholder consultations confirmed there was an urgent case for cohesive, systemic and sustained change.

“Change can commence at the grassroots and this should not be discouraged. However, the systemic and sustained change required to make a step change in achieving gender equity in Australia will primarily occur when led and championed from the top,” Professor O’Reilly said.

The decadal plan highlights the economic case for gender equity, citing the 2017 World Economic Forum’s “Gender gap report”, which estimates that closing the gender gap in economic participation by 25 per cent by 2025 could add as much as US$5.3 trillion to global gross domestic product in the same timeframe.

“It’s not just an equality perspective that’s important here, it’s a business imperative,” said Australia’s first ambassador for Women in STEM, Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith.

“Australia needs to be the clever country again. We need to be getting those large tech companies to stay in Australia and we need to be developing business capabilities around the new economies and become worldwide competitive again.”

The starting point for the implementation of the plan is a Pathways to Equity in STEM workshop hosted by the Academies in Melbourne on 3 April. It will provide an opportunity for delegates to learn what other organisations are doing in the gender equity space, providing a platform for both learning and collaboration.