The STEM identity crisis must end to shift the gender imbalance | Women's Agenda

The STEM identity crisis must end to shift the gender imbalance

STEM is facing an “identity crisis” and businesses, governments and education institutions must do more to fix it.

That’s according to analysis of a new survey of people aged 20 to 35, which finds that a massive 89% of women believe businesses need to do more to encourage women into STEM careers, with women also being more likely than men to say there are barriers to pursuing such careers.

The research by Tabcorp revealed a number of alarming stats, including that 46% of women don’t believe they are “clever enough” to consider a career in STEM, and that one in five are concerned about pursuing a career in STEM due to its “boys’ club” image. Meanwhile, 50% of men and women working in STEM say someone tried to convince them not to pursue such a career.

In the tech sector more specifically, recent trend data from the ABS has revealed a decline. Just 35% of those employed in the category of ‘Information, Media and Telecommunications’ were female – making the February figures the lowest level since 1990. As Bernard Keane recently wrote in Crikey, when broken down to software engineering, the figure drops to just 22%, which is a significant contrast from the near 50/50 levels reached in the early 1990s.

News headlines regarding sexual harassment and bullying — like those that have been coming out of Uber in recent months, certainly don’t help. Over night news emerged that Uber has dismissed more than 20 employees following a law firm investigation into sexual harassment complaints, as well as other allegations of bullying and discrimination.

Tabcorp, which employs more than 750 STEM professionals, pursued its study of young people in order to explore the role of business in getting more women into the field. It’s Chief Information Officer Kim Wenn is the only woman ranked in CIO’s list of Australia’s Top 10 CIOs, and one of only a handful across the top fifty.

She believes the research proves businesses are not doing enough to dispel some of the stigmas, perceptions and stereotypes that continue to turn women off STEM careers.

STEM has an identity crisis, she says, and leaders must do more to role model what a STEM career is actually like, and work harder to ensure the diversity of their teams reflects the diversity of the customers and clients who’re using their products.

I’ve worked in the industry for 34 years and strongly believe that the perception of what we do doesn’t match reality,” she says. “It’s far more than coding and number crunching – it opens up a whole new world of innovation and opportunity across a range of career paths from marketing and sales to web design, mobile strategy, customer experience and product development.

“Large corporates need to come together with government and education to change the stigma around embarking on a technology career and really work on our image and career possibilities within technology,” she says.

Asked what’s working at Tabcorp, Kim told me that a non-gendered parental leave policy (including 13 weeks for primary carers and six weeks for secondary carers), flexible work options, mentoring programs, as well as education programs to employees to highlight the benefits of gender, are all helping to produce results. 

“As leaders in technology, we need to work together to remove stigmas and stereotypes, and provide role models to illustrate what a career in STEM looks like, and the opportunities it offers for women.”

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