Tag Archives: STEM disciplines

SAGE pilot

Men of history, women of the future

The modern disciplines and industries of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) have developed over centuries, from the natural philosophers of the Renaissance to the multi-billion dollar global enterprises of today. With only a few exceptions – Ada Lovelace, Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin among them – men have dominated the institutions of STEM, brought new technologies and innovations to market, and inevitably reaped the recognition and the rich and varied rewards.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the structures and processes that underpin STEM today have evolved in a way that strongly favour men. Reflecting on my own career, I well remember my surprise at being asked to change a regular Saturday morning departmental staff meeting to a time more compatible with the family responsibilities of some of my female colleagues. The request was eminently sensible, but such considerations were only just beginning to register with STEM leaders of the 1990s.

Fast-forward to 2016, and while many of the policies and procedures that support hiring and promotion practices have improved, there remain significant structural and cultural problems that need to be overcome.

There is a sharp and in some cases growing discrepancy in representation of women and men across the academic spectrum, with women holding more than 50% of junior positions across most STEM disciplines, but fewer than 20% of full professorships.

Professor Tanya Monro, Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of South Australia spoke on this issue with Professors Nalini Joshi and Emma Johnston at the National Press Club in March 2016. She described the ‘motherhood penalty’ that has been shown to affect income, career advancement and perceived competence relative to men and to women without children.

Catherine Osborne also spoke on the ABC Science Show about how the lack of flexibility and the short term nature of contracts offered to early and mid-career scientists – particularly women – forced her out of her chosen profession.

In an effort to address these issues, the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering joined forces in 2015 to launch the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) initiative that is piloting the Athena SWAN Charter; a UK-based accreditation framework that rewards universities and other research institutions on the basis of how much they do to improve gender equity in STEM.

Thirty of Australia’s 40 universities have now joined the SAGE pilot. So have a number of medical research institutes and research agencies, CSIRO among them. The Academies are grateful to the Australian Government for their support of this initiative through the National Innovation and Science Agenda.

However, the efforts to change the many structural barriers to gender equality in STEM are only the beginning. More insidious, and therefore more difficult to overcome, are the significant cultural norms and unconscious biases that affect day-to-day interactions between men and women working in STEM, as they do throughout society.

There is clearly much to be done. Forward thinking organisations are setting targets for achieving gender balance in senior STEM roles by 2025 or 2030. Between now and then, programs like the SAGE pilot, Male Champions of Change and the Panel Pledge will make a difference, but true change will require leadership and commitment from us all.

Professor Andrew Holmes AM

President, Australian Academy of Science

Read next: Dr Saraid Billiards of the NHMRC sheds light on funding reforms that are vital to the retention and progression of women in STEM.

People and careers: Meet women who’ve paved brilliant careers in STEM here, find further success stories here and explore your own career options at postgradfutures.com.

Spread the word: Help Australian women achieve successful careers in STEM! Share this piece on the SAGE pilot using the social media buttons below.

More Thought Leaders: Click here to go back to the Thought Leadership Series homepage, or start reading the Graduate Futures Thought Leadership Series here.

role models

The power of non-linear role models

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.

People and careers: Meet women who’ve paved brilliant careers in STEM here, find further success stories here and explore your own career options at postgradfutures.com.

Spread the word: Help Australian women achieve successful careers in STEM! Share this piece on role models using the social media buttons below.

More Thought Leaders: Click here to go back to the Thought Leadership Series homepage, or start reading the Graduate Futures Thought Leadership Series here.