How women and girls are transforming STEM

February 11, 2022

By Anna-Maria Arabia, Chief Executive, Australian Academy of Science

Diversity and inclusion are core pillars of the Australian Academy of Science’s vision for a scientifically informed Australian community that embraces excellence in science and is guided by, and enjoys the benefits of, scientific endeavour.

The Academy recognises that diversity is critical to excellence in science and that an inclusive STEM community brings together the widest range of talents, backgrounds, perspectives and experiences, maximising scientific innovation and creativity, as well as the competitiveness of Australia and its scientific industries.

Australia’s STEM-skilled workforce has a disproportionate under-representation of women compared to other industries. Only 16% of Australia’s stem-skilled workforce are women, whereas the broader Australian workforce has close to 50% female participation. The Academy’s Gender Equity in STEM program is a suite of initiatives targeting various dimensions of the STEM ecosystem: systemic, institutional and individual. Our program is underpinned and informed by the Women in STEM Decadal Plan and includes:

  • Women in STEM Decadal Plan Champions initiative, launched in 2019, which encourages all public and private organisations across the STEM sector to align their gender equity activities with the six opportunities outlined in the decadal plan
  • STEM Women, a network of practitioners who are members of an online discovery platform featuring women in Australia working and engaging in STEM
  • STEM Women ASIA, which extends the reach and capability of the STEM Women platform into 30 countries.

Attracting women and girls to STEM and providing an environment for them to thrive is a shared responsibility of government, academia, the education system, industry and the community. The attract–retain–progress framework outlined in the decadal plan provides a useful approach to understanding the issues and challenges faced by women and girls in STEM.

While the impacts of COVID-19 disrupted the careers of early- and mid-career researchers (EMCRs), it has particularly negatively impacted women in the STEM workforce. Women remain an under-represented group in STEM and have been disproportionately impacted by disparities in the distribution of domestic workloads, and have had fewer career opportunities compared to men, hindering their career progression. More than ever, the attract–retain–progress framework is critical to overcoming systemic challenges faced by women in STEM.

There is overwhelming evidence that women face systemic challenges in the workforce in STEM and beyond, which negatively impacts their engagement, experiences and opportunities for career progression. Factors such as biased employment practices, lack of workplace flexibility, a concentration of women in industries that have lower than average incomes, and the propensity for women to have more time out of the workforce, all contribute to the pay gap where women earn less than men by 14.2%.

As outlined in Australia’s most recent STEM Workforce report:

“Further barriers exist which can limit women’s participation in STEM education and careers, from stereotypes and bias that deter girls from studying STEM subjects at school, to a lack of job security in workplaces, the impact of career disruptions, social and cultural barriers, and gender discrimination and sexual harassment in STEM workplaces. Not all these barriers are specific to women and girls in STEM, with many experienced by women in all areas of the workforce”.

Organisations wanting to support the development and increased participation of women in STEM should adopt an evidence-based approach, which is intersectional and centres the voices and experiences of individuals, as part of all their efforts. While there are various initiatives employers and peak bodies can adopt, without an evidence-based approach that is intersectional and consultative, it may prove difficult to measure the long-term success of initiatives, resulting in less meaningful workforce engagement and diminished lasting change. 

As part of International Day of Women and Girls in Science, the Academy spoke with several outstanding women within STEM and considered the systemic challenges women can experience in society and the workforce.

Extracts from ‘Conversations with women and girls in STEM’

These are drawn from a series of conversations with women in STEM published on the STEM Women website.

What drew you into the world of STEM?

Karlie Noon

As a kid, I was pretty obsessed with the natural world and found it beautiful. It wasn’t until I was 19 after reading A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking that I even knew what physics was. Up until this stage, I had a pretty strong handle on math and became obsessed with learning about the universe so figured I may as well have a go at doing a degree in it. I never thought much more about it, I was just really curious about how everything came to be.

Karlie Noon. Image credit Rhett Wyman, Sydney Morning Herald

Vaishnavi Muddam, National Youth Science Forum Student 

I recently heard a mathematician define mathematics as the study of anything that can be made precise. I have always been drawn to the logical nature of mathematics and its ability to explain the universe in such a complex yet beautiful language. The extension and application of this language is physics.

Vaishnavi Muddam. Image: supplied.

Dr Jess Hopf

I came into science to study our oceans but stayed because I love problem-solving and discovery. I now work as an ecological modeller researching marine reserves. That is, I convert ecology into maths to help understand the where, why, and how of protecting our oceans. 

Dr Jess Hopf. Image: supplied.

Who are some of your role models?

Dr Tich-Lam Nguyen

I have learnt a little bit from many women whom I’ve had the opportunity to work with and know of. I learnt resilience and the value of education from my mum. She couldn’t complete high school due to the war and had always encouraged us to never waste an opportunity to learn… Angela Merkel and Jacinda Ardern are also my role models although I’ve never had the privilege to meet them. Angela Merkel has truly shown what a difference a leader with STEM backgrounds can make. She’s positioned Germany as a leader in energy reform and her influence has spread even outside of the EU. Jacinda Ardern showed how empathy, kindness and a forward focus can lead a country through times of crisis.

Dr Tich-Lam Nguyen. Image: supplied.

What advice you would give women and girls considering a career in STEM?

Former EMCR Forum Chair Dr Yee Lian Chew

The major challenge for me was having faith in myself that I could keep going and that I wasn’t going to be a complete failure (imposter syndrome, anyone?). It definitely helps to have friends and allies who lift you up when you feel down. If you love science and technology, and you want to pursue it as a career, don’t let the haters keep you down. Find your people and keep on lifting each other up.

 Dr Yee Lian Chew. Image: Jonathan Barge from the Flinders Foundation.

Nabilah Chowdury, National Youth Science Forum

Don't be disheartened; give it a shot and see what you think. You may be nervous about entering a male-dominated sector, but don't be discouraged. I really believe that you do not need to be the best student or the smartest person in the room to embark on a career in stem. Dream big and put in the effort. There are no limits to what you can do if you do so.

Nabilah Chowdhury (second from right). Image: supplied.

Sophie Johnstone, National Youth Science Forum student

I am endlessly grateful for the opportunities that have been provided for me through NYSF. From learning how to become an Astronomer to finding out the secretes to the microscopic world of E. coli bacteria, I have learnt so much and am incredibly inspired to pursue a career in STEM.

Sophie Johnstone. Image: supplied.

This story was first published on the Diversity Council Australia website.

© 2024 Australian Academy of Science