More women are studying STEM, but there are still stubborn barriers in the workplace

Today, the Australian Government released the STEM Equity Monitor 2022 – the country’s annual dashboard on gender participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and careers.

This data is more relevant than ever. Australia is facing unprecedented skills shortages in critical areas – we need highly skilled people to help us meet our economic, environmental and technological challenges.

Future careers in all sectors will depend heavily on STEM skills. But a lack of diversity means we have a limited workforce and lack a wide range of perspectives.

Read more: Australia needs more engineers. And more of them must be women

What does the dashboard say?

We start with some positive news: the number of women enrolled in university STEM courses increased by 24% between 2015 and 2020, compared to a 9% increase for men. There has been a more gradual increase in STEM professional enrollments, where only 16% are women.

Women’s participation in the labor market is also gradually increasing. The proportion of skilled STEM jobs held by women was 15% in 2021, an increase of 2% in just 12 months.

Stem Equity Monitor Data Report 2022, CC BY

But only 23% of senior executives and 8% of CEOs in STEM industries are women. On average, women are paid 18% less than men across all STEM industries – although this gap narrowed by 1% last year.

Three graphs showing the gender pay gap in all STEM, all health sectors and all sectors

Stem Equity Monitor Data Report 2022, CC BY

Although we are more successful in attracting women to certain university STEM courses, very few women continue in professional STEM education. And there’s far too little attention paid to keeping STEM-qualified women in the workforce.

A five-year study of 2011 STEM graduates of the year found that in 2016, only 1 in 10 STEM-qualified women worked in a STEM industry, compared to more than 1 in 5 STEM-qualified men. of gender were not collected.

The huge difference in retention rates should come as no surprise when you consider the gender roles imposed by our society and the vastly different experiences people face, both in the workplace and in society at large.

It is important to recognize key gaps in this data, for example on other gender identities, sexual orientation, socio-economic factors, disability and race. Expanding the data captured will allow us to better understand the full impact of the many intersecting barriers to participation that people face.

We need structural changes in the workplace

Companies with chronic skills shortages cannot continue to focus on programs designed to expand the pipeline, hoping the system will fix itself. We need structural changes in the workplace.

One avenue is to introduce more flexible work options and expand access to paid parental leave. According to the Agency for Gender Equality in the Workplace, equal primary carer leave was offered by 3 in 5 employers in 2020-21.

Thanks to a concerted effort by many employers, 12% of those leaves were taken by men last year, almost twice as many as the previous year. This figure was even higher (20%) in management positions.

Read more: New two-year term for Australian Government Women in STEM Ambassador

Prejudice, discrimination and sexual harassment are major factors that cause people to leave their workplace. Addressing these issues receives too little funding and attention.

Sexual harassment in the workplace costs Australia $3.5 billion a year and exacts a terrible personal toll on those affected. Women are more likely to be sexually harassed than men, and people from racial minorities, people with disabilities and LGBTQIA+ people suffer disproportionately.

According to the national survey report [email protected]: Sexual Harassment, sexual harassment is more prevalent in male-dominated industries. The Australian government recently committed to implementing all 55 recommendations in this report – an important and positive step.

Read more: We asked our scientists about the influential women in their lives

Companies urgently need to put strong systems in place to prevent discrimination, bias and sexual harassment. There are many excellent tools available to guide this work, for example those provided by the Australian Human Rights Commission, Chief Executive Women, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, Our Watch and the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering .

Removing Barriers to Labor Market Participation

Ultimately, we need rigorous and well-resourced initiatives to reduce barriers to labor market participation. To that end, my office has created a National Evaluation Guide for STEM Equity Programs.

Several graphs showing the proportion of women receiving research grants

Women are underrepresented in STEM teaching and research roles. Stem Equity Monitor Data Report 2022, CC BY

Rather than the usual public relations campaigns and cupcake drives, we need to invest in evidence-based solutions to address systemic issues affecting people facing discrimination in the workplace.

Nothing less than strong, decisive and coordinated action by governments and business will change this trend. The Australian government has already moved in this direction, announcing a review of existing government women in STEM programs.

Read more: UNSW researcher named Australian STEM superstar

This review will determine the impact of these programs, in order to direct future investments towards actions that have been proven to strengthen Australia’s STEM workforce.

The key to diversifying STEM workplaces is respect – and reducing the power gaps that appear along gender, culture and other lines.

A greater respect for each person will build a stronger and more cohesive society, ready to meet future challenges. And it will ensure that Australia’s fast-growing sectors – like space, advanced manufacturing, quantum technologies and cybersecurity – will be well supported by a skilled workforce in the future.

The conversation

Lisa Harvey-Smith, Australian Government Women in STEM Ambassador, Professor, UNSW Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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