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IWD 2023: How we can help women transform STEM fields
Wed, 8th Mar 2023

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) has to date been a male-dominated industry that is lacking in female participation across Australia, as well as on a global scale. According to the Australian Government's latest STEM Equity Monitor (2022), women contribute to only 36% of enrolments in university STEM courses, and just 16% of enrolments in vocational STEM courses.

However, the 2022 Equity Monitor did see minor improvements across the sector, as the proportion of women enrolling in STEM courses surged by 24% in the 2015-2020 period. While these statistics are certainly encouraging, we will need to keep pushing for an even bigger increase in the number of women in STEM to diversify the whole sector and bring new, unique perspectives to the table.

As women currently only make up 27% of the STEM workforce, it is important to bring more balance in gender representation to include diversified female perspectives in decision-making and innovation. We should help all women interested in STEM by celebrating their success and achievements, as well as implementing specific changes to ensure greater equality and opportunities for all.

Emphasise the importance of science in schools

As many people get introduced to career prospects when they are still in school, it is critical to commence STEM education early while we are still developing interests and aspirations. It is, of course, to be expected that not all young women will be keen on this career path, but this step is more about creating an equal opportunity for all.

The only way to change this is to make software engineering and IT part of the school curriculum to increase overall tech literacy and understanding of what STEM subjects actually involve. While making drastic curriculum changes is never an easy road, it will likely be the most important step of this journey. According to a study by the University of Houston, stereotypes in STEM begin forming at the age of six, which the researchers believe could be one of the reasons why girls and women are underrepresented in the sector.

Create more female role models

Role models have always been seen as success catalysts by setting a good example for their followers and showing their aspirations are within reach. Creating more female role models in STEM will inspire more women into the industry and make a 'platform' for celebrating their achievements. But sadly, when it comes to leadership roles, just 23% of senior management and 8% of CEOs in STEM-qualified industries are women.

This finding is most likely linked to the fact that there are still evident stereotypes in the STEM industry, where the term 'scientist' is predominantly seen as a man in a white coat. The well-known 'Draw-a-Scientist' experiment, commonly used to see how children perceive scientists, is a significant proof point for this. In the American study, children were asked to draw a figure of how they see a scientist. The results showed that only 24% of students drew a female scientist, which is an estimated equivalent of three in ten pupils.

As such, creating more female role models and showcasing their presence in STEM will influence a mind shift where women are also represented in men-dominated industries. If non-STEM fields like arts can make women heroes, such as Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, why wouldn't we want to drive the same path for STEM?

Encourage more women to found startups

According to an investor report by Women's Agenda in 2019, women are more reluctant to make investments and riskier financial decisions than their male counterparts due to a fear of losing money, not putting enough trust in financial advisers and other similar reasons. While there are definitely challenges and significant risks associated with founding a startup, there is more that can be done to support female participation.

Steps like backing more women in the form of government-funded grants, scholarships for STEM courses, or private investments to boost startups can help to ignite an entrepreneurial spark. The Australian government's Boosting Female Founders initiative, which aims to help female entrepreneurs overcome investment disadvantages, is a clear step in the right direction and shows a commitment to providing tangible support to make female participation possible.

It would also be encouraging if Australian investors demonstrated more confidence in investing in female-founded startups. The disheartening statistics extracted from the 'Accelerating women founders: The untapped investment opportunity' report has shown only 0.7% of Australian capital was raised for women in FY 21/22, compared to 3.8% in the year prior. That's only $70 million out of $10 billion worth of deals. These statistics are concerning because, while investment numbers are growing in Australia, the percentage going to female startups is actually shrinking.

Overall, it will be important to create public and private initiatives to encourage female participation in the STEM industry. By achieving a greater balance of men and women in the sector, we can bring our differences together and offer more universal perspectives to benefit all. Thus, it is now up to us as individuals, as well as organisations, to encourage more female participants to invest in their dreams to start a business, create more STEM subjects in schools and to shape equal opportunities and exposure to female role models. Ultimately, these actions should act as a catalyst to reducing gender disparity and male-dominated prejudices across all STEM industries.