By Forough Khandan
It’s no secret that STEM industries have a gender diversity problem and even more so when it comes to the representation of women in technical leadership roles, such as the head of engineering and head of product.
We know that STEM skills are critical for creating a stronger national economy, but according to research from the Australian Computer Society (ACS), women make up only 29 per cent of the technology workforce in Australia.
While government and education initiatives are trying to attract more females into STEM courses, more support is needed if we’re going to achieve gender equality.
Australia’s health and medical sectors are constantly evolving, but the pace of innovation could be accelerated through greater diversity – including gender, ethnicity, background and experience.
There’s plenty of evidence to show that gender diversity drives results and innovation, so we should be calling for greater participation, encouragement and enablement of women in STEM to drive the future. Let’s take a look at how we can increase Australian female participation in STEM.
Changing the mindset of the nation
In 2010, I moved from Iran to Australia. When working in Iran, there was no difference in pay or progression between men and women in the STEM industry – it was engineers first. In fact, the first time I was exposed to this inequality was in Australia.
In 2020, the pay gap between women and men in STEM-qualified industries was 19 per cent. The challenge is to change the beliefs, values and ideas that have been part of our society and culture for many years.
It will take time and concerted, collective efforts to shift them.
The first step to progress is awareness — a light needs to be shone on it, and some people may not even think about it. Years of advantage for one gender over another has potentially made all of us unconsciously biased (at different levels).
The second step is actively working on becoming more unbiased. If we are subject to inequality, speak up. Do not accept inequality as the norm.
Addressing Australia’s STEM talent shortage
In Australia, STEM jobs are increasing as advances in technology are impacting everything in the world of work, entire job sectors are emerging or disappearing, and workforces are rushing to keep up with change.
A lack of diversity is a huge problem for the future employment of women, and for men who work in these industries too.
As having diverse points of view, approaches and skill sets this will help businesses get to the best solution faster. It’s an economic imperative that we find ways to engage more women in science and tech so that Australia can bridge the skills gap for these roles.
Some research has shown that women’s confidence in STEM is not the issue, but rather ongoing career transition and progression in the workforce itself.
In my opinion, this problem will automatically be solved if biases are removed and equal opportunity for both genders is provided, and a merit-based progression system is in place.
However, inviting and encouraging females to apply and ask for higher positions could be very helpful, as in my experience generally, females are underrating themselves compared to their male colleagues.
One of the key barriers to getting more women involved in STEM is that girls are drawn away from science and technology at an early age.
For instance, a survey conducted by Microsoft suggests that young women become interested in STEM at the age of 11, but start dramatically losing interest at about 15. This is partly due to a limited female role models, a lack of understanding of what a career in technology looks like.
The STEM industry also should put more emphasis on important skills like creativity, social aptitude and team collaboration.
We must work together to recognise the contribution that women have made to STEM, and celebrate their achievements as women of all ages can hop on the STEM train toward a stronger future.
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