Australia is a long way from gender equality in tech and other STEM fields

A federal government monitor of gender equality showed a very slow growth of women studying and working in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

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The Australian federal government has been collating data to report girls’ and women’s uptake in studies and careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The yearly STEM Equity Monitor has shown very slow advancement and plenty of areas to improve before Australia can achieve gender equality in STEM careers.

The monitor was launched in March 2020 as part of the federal government’s Advancing Women in STEM 2020 Action Plan, which falls short on setting clear goals to reach the proposed gender equality in STEM industries. The plan’s outcomes come down to educational systems and workplaces supporting the active inclusion of girls and women in STEM.

Studies, such as the 2015 Diversity Matters from McKinsey, which examined proprietary data sets for 366 public companies across a range of industries in Canada, Latin America, the United Kingdom, and the United States concluded that gender-diverse companies are 15% more likely to financially outperform their counterparts.

The 1% increase of women in STEM roles is too slow

The STEM Equity Monitor showed a very slow growth in the number of women enrolling for STEM courses, completing those courses, being employed in STEM areas, and so on. Despite this being a yearly report, in a statement the recently appointed minister for industry, science, and technology, Christian Porter, chose to compare current data to that of five years ago, which shows a 4% increase of women working in STEM industries since 2016. But a closer look that compares the data from 2019 to 2020 shows only a 1% increase in the number of women working in STEM industries.

The CEO of Melbourne-based technology services provider Araza, Victoria Kluth, told Computerworld Australia that the growth is too slow. “Most companies do give lip service to the issue, but there is just not enough delivery. It is all strategy and no action. This is a worry because, when there is economic pressure or business change, strategy ends and the increase to women in the STEM programs slows.”

Kluth is more than just words, from the beginning of Araza in 2013 she always strived for a 50-50 working environment and continues to do so with Araza being a gender-equitable organisation with about 50% of women across all areas of the company.

The industry director of cybersecurity for APAC at Unisys, Gergana Winzer, agrees the growth is slow and believes that knowledge-based action must be taken. “What would help is to create engagement strategies and implement them in schools and universities to grab the attention of young women while they are still choosing which path to take.” Winzer also suggests that understanding the different ways young women make decisions could result in more effective communicating the pros of the industry.

Winzer also supports, for an interim period, “a minimum percentage of women in IT and cyber in leadership”, and would “allow education to fulfil on this as well as provide more mentoring, coaching,  and general info for women to be inspired.” Long term, “I do not think that we will be a better society if everything is 50-50. I think we will be a better society when the individuals are given equal opportunities independently of their sex, race, and culture, and are paid equally,” she says.

The systemic sexism that reduces female engagement in STEM

In 2019, women comprised 36% of STEM qualification enrolments at universities and only 15% enrolments in STEM VET (vocational education and training) qualifications, the same low rate for VET qualifications that was recorded in 2018. Combined, enrolments in VET or university STEM courses grew 1% year over year.

A mentor at the Australian Women in Security Network (AWSN), Winzer is hopeful that the numbers are projected to grow. She suggests more engagement with schools and universities and more communication around the topic. “We need to make the industry ‘cool’ so young generations can relate to its opportunities.”

Kluth says the slow growth is a large problem to unwrap. She says the research shows that girls are being engaged too late—“middle school or high school is too far down the track”. The main barrier is that girls don’t see as many or, sometimes, any women in certain STEM professions. “’You can’t be what you can’t see’ is a popular quote for a reason. It’s not that you cannot go into these professions, but it doesn’t make it very inviting.” She adds that is difficult to get excited about a vocation when men are still, and continually, the ones being promoted.

The STEM Equity Monitor includes data from a survey of 1,500 parents and 850 educators to help understand the perceptions and attitudes to STEM of parents and educators as influencers.

The survey found that fathers (47%) were more than twice as likely to have STEM qualifications as mothers (20%). The conversations at home also do not show a promising future, as the survey found weekly conversations about STEM were more common among fathers (51%) compared to mothers (38%) and among parents of boys compared to parents of girls (47% for boys, 42% for girls).

Unsurprisingly, STEM conversations were found to be more frequent among families where at least one parent works in a STEM-related occupation (59%) compared to those in non-STEM careers (43%).

The gender pay gap discourages engagement, too

Scientific and research services was the only area where there is a larger number of women in senior management, but it experienced a drop of 2% of women in higher roles from 2019 to 2020. In all the other industries, the proportion of women at senior levels in 2020 (23%) was less than the proportion across all industries (37%).

Worse, in 2020, women’s average full-time remuneration was 19% less than men’s in STEM-qualified industries. This equates to an average pay gap of $28,994. That pay gap has long-term consequences: Women retire with less superannuation, putting them at greater rrisk than men of living in poverty in old age. To help, the federal government has removed the $450-per-month threshold under which employees do not have to be paid the superannuation guarantee.

Child-rearing adds an additional ecomomic barrier, as that work falls mainly to women, who often have to reduce or pause their work to take care of their families. Child care often costs too much, so many women struggle to both maintain careers and ensure care for their chidlren. To help, the 2021 federal budget includes a $1.7 billion investment in child care to make it more affordable and, therefore, allow working mothers to take on extra days of work.

Awareness campaigns and government incentive may help, but until organisations understand that pay is part of the problem and start changing it, it will be hard to convince young girls to go through the same training as boys just to learn that they will get paid so much less than those doing the same job. Kluth says that, as a community, Australians can help change this outcome by choosing to support organisations that are gender-equitable.

What stops women from seeking STEM-qualified careers?

There are multiple reasons why women aren’t seeking a career in STEM, Winzer says. “Some come from the education system, others from peer and family pressure. The more we delve into how we make decisions and what are the biases, the better we as industry will be able to attract female talent in cyber and STEM in general.”

Kluth believes there is another problem, that organisations are choosing men over women in the hiring process. “The women I meet do want careers in STEM but companies are not hiring at the same percentage.”

She learned this after starting the Araza Women in Cyber program for women with IT experience who want to move into cyber roles. “We are not short of candidates—there are a lot of qualified women”, she says. “Yet, we have a huge gap in women in cyber. So, I think the problem is with the people hiring, not with the women available.” Her company’s program aims to hire IT female professionals and train them for cybersecurity roles, to help change the unequal balance at least a little.

The challenge of increasing women’s participation in STEM is hardly new; the IEEE highlighted the issue in 1990 in the US, and programs to encourage women in STEM and in technology have been promoted for years globally, . So, will the reality continue to change so slowly? “This is a complex problem and requires multiple solutions. One size won’t fit all,” Winzer says. “It is complicated. This is something humanity hasn’t done yet. What I know is that it would work if we start the conversation early and inspire women to come in our industry. Inspire them to be leaders early in the piece and inspire them to pursue their dreams.”

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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