Monday, 01 April 2019 23:07

Women's under-representation in STEM poses threat to Australian prosperity: report

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Australia has not yet made the systemic changes required to achieve diversity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, according to the findings of newly released research.

And, the findings contained in the Women in STEM Decadal Plan launched on Monday at Parliament House, Canberra, by the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, Karen Andrews, also show that the current under-representation and under-utilisation of women in the STEM workforce poses a threat to Australia’s prosperity.

The plan was developed by the Australian Academy of Science in partnership with the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering. It outlines six opportunities to strengthen gender equity in STEM in Australia over the next 10 years, including establishing a national evaluation framework to guide decision making and drive investment and effort into STEM measures that work.

Australian Academy of Science Fellow and Expert Working Group member, Professor Sue O’Reilly, said that while many organisations were taking actions at an individual level to support the attraction, retention and progression of women in STEM, extensive stakeholder consultations confirmed there was an “urgent case” for cohesive, systemic and sustained change.

“Change can commence at the grassroots and this should not be discouraged. However, the systemic and sustained change required to make a step change in achieving gender equity in Australia will primarily occur when led and championed from the top,” Professor O’Reilly said.

The decadal plan highlights the economic case for gender equity, citing the 2017 World Economic Forum’s "Gender gap report" which estimates that closing the gender gap in economic participation by 25% by 2025 could add as much as US$5.3 trillion to global gross domestic product in the same timeframe.

“It’s not just an equality perspective that’s important here, it’s a business imperative,” said Australia’s first ambassador for Women in STEM, Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith.

“Australia needs to be the clever country again. We need to be getting those large tech companies to stay in Australia and we need to be developing business capabilities around the new economies and become worldwide competitive again.”

Dr Bruce Godfrey, vice-president of Diversity at the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, said the plan provided the first opportunity to tackle the issue of gender equity at a national scale and highlights the importance of government, academia, industry, the education sector and the community working together to drive change.

“If this plan and the opportunities contained within it are realised, the STEM graduates of 2030 — 9 and 10-year-olds making their way through primary school in 2019, as well as those entering the workforce from other life journeys — will join workplaces that are respectful, free of harassment and discrimination, value diversity, and structured to support a variety of STEM careers that include women in leadership positions,” Dr Godfrey said.

The starting point for the implementation of the plan is a Pathways to Equity in STEM workshop to be hosted by the Academies in Melbourne on 3 April. It will provide an opportunity for delegates to learn what other organisations are doing in the gender equity space, providing a platform for both learning and collaboration.

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Peter Dinham

Peter Dinham is a co-founder of iTWire and a 35-year veteran journalist and corporate communications consultant. He has worked as a journalist in all forms of media – newspapers/magazines, radio, television, press agency and now, online – including with the Canberra Times, The Examiner (Tasmania), the ABC and AAP-Reuters. As a freelance journalist he also had articles published in Australian and overseas magazines. He worked in the corporate communications/public relations sector, in-house with an airline, and as a senior executive in Australia of the world’s largest communications consultancy, Burson-Marsteller. He also ran his own communications consultancy and was a co-founder in Australia of the global photographic agency, the Image Bank (now Getty Images).

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