The world around us is undergoing rapid transformation by people finding innovative ways to use information and technology to better serve our needs. At the heart of these disruptive innovations are people with deep groundings in science, technology, engineering and maths – the STEM disciplines.
Critically, the number of kids studying subjects in school that lead to STEM courses is decreasing. According the Australian Bureau of Statistics only 29% of STEM graduates are women, and in the key disciplines of IT and engineering this falls to 14%. Low enrolment numbers for women in STEM have been a consistent factor since I was an undergraduate in engineering.
Today, Australia competes in the global race for innovative ideas with only half the team – the male half. If we are to develop new industries that move us beyond Australia’s traditional industries and allow us to be globally competitive, we have to change.
For a start, we have to help our kids, and in particular our girls, understand the wealth of opportunities open to them with a STEM foundation. We need to address any perceived or real bias in our high school exam systems and marking arrangements that discourage kids from taking up studies in maths and science. With the highly competitive nature of the results from high school assessments, we need to work to change views that taking STEM subjects could lead to any disadvantage.
We also have to recognise – as a positive – the fact that many STEM graduates will work in roles outside of the classical STEM disciplines. These are role models for a future in which interdisciplinary graduates are able to contribute to the transformation of traditional industries such as the finance, automotive and healthcare sectors.
In an effort to stimulate interest in STEM early on in schooling, Macquarie University runs the FIRST Robotics program in Australia for children in years K–12, with key sponsorship by Google and Ford. This program gives all participants a chance to work as teams that bring together mechanics, electronics, information processing, design and software development skills to build robots and compete with them.
This is an example of how we can not only inspire school students’ interest in STEM, but create pathways for them to pursue these fields into further study, careers, and entrepreneurship in a variety of areas. Today the program involves 5000 kids from 600 schools, and the total numbers of participants across Australia is rapidly growing.
Having stimulated interest at school, we need examples at universities and in the workplace that highlight the important roles that women with STEM backgrounds occupy. This is vital to improving the pull of women through universities and into industries where they are able to make meaningful contributions.
At Macquarie University, we are actively focused on building women’s participation in world-leading research programs through the Science in Australia Gender Equality (SAGE) program. We are able to celebrate the achievements of our world-leading female researchers, including role models such as Macquarie University’s Professor Ewa Goldys (recent winner of a Eureka Award) and Professor Nicki Packer.
Having shining examples of where STEM can take our young women is key to closing the gender gap. We need to expose women to the right kinds of images and messages, which involves having conversations around the non-traditional and non-linear career pathways available to them.
Professor Barbara Ann Messerle
Executive Dean, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Macquarie University
Read next: Deloitte Partner Elissa Hilliard says raising Australia’s STEM IQ means teaching girls foundational skills in their formative school years.
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