Here's what is being done to empower, promote and retain Australian women in STEM

Here’s what is being done to empower, promote and retain Australian women in science

Dr Jessica Borger
Today (Feb 11) marks the International Day of Women and Girls in Science! It’s a day established by the UN General Assembly to address global gender inequality in STEM, highlighting why women still struggle to achieve gender equality in the field, and promoting the full and equal participation of women and girls in science.

Below Jessica Borger shares what’s being done in Australia. 

Women make up half of our community and the number of women completing university degrees in STEM is equivalent to male counterparts.

Yet there has been no change in the ‘scissor graph’ demographic showing that women continue to be excluded from fully participating in science, with less than 30% of researchers worldwide being women.

So what is being done to promote, encourage, empower and importantly retain women and girls in STEM in Australia?

Promoting power in numbers

We are already challenged with common misconceptions about what a scientist is from a young age, a loner genius nerd generally portrayed as a cliched middle-aged man in a lab coat.

Recently an SBS TV show, Curious minds was aired to breakdown this common misconception within the classroom. School children were partnered with STEM mentors to show them what is possible in STEM and how to get there, empowering them to continue and succeed in male-dominated fields.

STEM paths can be perceived as purely academic. The Industry Mentoring Network in STEM (IMNIS) engages PhD students with industry leaders. This gender inclusive program aims to broaden mentees opportunities in the STEM ecosystem beyond academia, providing state-level networking with industry.

Networking is crucial for longevity in STEM, creating opportunities and providing support for career progression. Women in STEMM Australia aims to connect all women in STEM with a motto of ‘pay it forward’.

A more unexpected space for the empowerment of women in STEM has been the global success of the Australian Steminist book club. Twitter discussions as well as physical meet-ups have promoted both friendships and collaborations.

And then for those that want to get healthy while they are mentored, Mentor Walks helps women advance their careers through getting advice from female  leaders in STEM and other industries on challenges they face.

 Creating role-models

The award of the 2017 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science to its first female recipient, Prof Jenny Graves AO, drew recognition of her as a scientist and champion of change in gender equality.  This award brought recognition of excellence by a female scientist into the mainstream media.

Recognition of each other’s scientific excellence can create role models and provide opportunities. Recent  initiatives, such as veski sidebyside, selected participants based on their career achievements, challenges, aspirations and passion to communicate the role of women in STEM.

Superstars of STEM is a bi-annual program created to produce celebrity female scientists in Australia. Selected participants are trained to become role models for women and girls in STEM to achieve gender equality in the media of scientists working in STEM.

Providing opportunities to succeed

Universities, institutes and industry need policies to provide opportunities for women to succeed and progress in their career. Basic support is fundamental in regard to flexible working hours, parental leave and family-friendly meeting times.

I work for a university which has implemented gender equity programs ranging from research grants, mentoring, grant writing and leadership training. The Walter Eliza Hall in addition to its own initiatives was the first medical research institute in Australia to establish it’s own onsite early learning centre.

Funding bodies and societies also need to provide support. The National Health Medical Research Centre (NHMRC), the largest funding body in Australia has a Gender Equality Strategy to work towards a gender-equal research workforce. The NHMRC Women in Health Science Working Committee was recently established to better understand the issues and barriers facing career progression by women researchers.

Improving measurements of gender equality in STEM

Gender imbalance in STEM has many possible explanations, although most are based on anecdotal evidence, with solid data still lacking. There are growing demands for comparable statistics on the representation of women in STEM.

One such group, Women in Science Parkville Precinct (WISPP) comprising 5 institutes in Melbourne developed an agreed set of metrics to share and gather information. This baseline data was established and confirmed that women are still underrepresented at senior levels.

WISPP are now the drivers of the Victorian Centre for Gender Equity which, if given government funding, aims to implement these standardised metrics to a State-wide scale to provide the solid data that will move change from an institutional to a systems level of policy making.

These initiatives complement the national Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) initiative, which recently piloted the successful UK Athena Swan Award, a charter with 10 key principles organisations must follow to address gender equity. It was found that women scientists employed in Athena Swan accredited organisations experienced greater career satisfaction, fairness in workload and increased opportunities.

In 2018, 15 institutions were recipients of the inaugural Athena SWAN Bronze Award demonstrating the growing commitment of research to SAGE in Australia.

Promoting women’s participation in policy

The Australian government has implemented the Women in STEM Decadal Plan, to provide a 10-year roadmap to identify the barriers and enablers that affect women’s participation, retention and success in STEM from school through to careers. There is an Expert Working Group that consults with community forums and selected stakeholders but it is essential women participate in high-level processes which shape the science agenda.

Women also need to be involved in those policies affecting gender equality.  The appointment of Prof Lisa Harvey-Smith as Australia’s First Women in STEM Ambassador signalled the coalition government’s efforts to encourage girls and women in STEM by providing a National advocate.

In support of women’s voices on societies, boards and in governance, there is support from the Champions of Change, a group of influential male leaders that aim to redefine men’s roles in addressing gender inequality and supports them to step up besides women. Perhaps even ‘pay it forward’.

Gender equality is achievable

Momentum in gender equality and diversity is building rapidly in recent years. There now exist numerous platforms for voices to be heard when calling for change and more avenues to drive and implement change.

Many problems faced by women in STEM transcend this field. It is critical that the wider community become aware of inequality, to work together to improve  governance and work place culture.

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