01 July 2016

STEMulating Change: Boosting female minds

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A grand total of 28 per cent of the Australian STEM-qualified workforce are female, according to Professionals Australia. Of the STEM areas, engineering is the least female-friendly with women comprising a measly 14% of employees.

The government is dedicating $13 million to encourage women to take up roles in the STEM sector whilst the Australian Labor Party is promising to deliver HECS debt free STEM degrees (I can hear my fellow arts graduates groan collectively).

But where do we lose our STEM girls? In primary school, girls take to the science labs and to the computer room as enthusiastically as boys. Something happens between our Year 6 graduation and when we enrol in our HSC subjects or choose our careers which stems the flow of women.

Some of our biggest innovations have come from the minds of women:
  • Marie Curie- a Polish physicist and the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (as well as being the first person to win it twice) for her work with radioactivity and discovering two elements- polonium and radium.
  • Rosalind Franklin- an English chemist who discovered the double helix structure of DNA.
  • Hedy Lamarr- an Austrian-American film actress who casually invented radio guidance technology on the side.
  • Emily Roebling- an American wife who finished her husband’s work as the Chief Engineer on the Brooklyn Bridge when he fell ill.

How many Marie Curie’s have we lost simply by failing to ensure there are sufficient pathways for women to enter STEM industries? How much more developed would we be as a society if we had the best minds in STEM, rather than the best male minds?

So what can we do?

In the office we can:
  • Offer support to existing female staff and ensure that they have equal opportunities to climb in the ranks alongside their male colleagues
  • Develop realistic gender diversity targets. Realistic probably won’t mean a 50:50 split immediately but may first be 30:70 before gradually evening the figures to an equilibrium
  • Design your recruitment strategies to attract and retain women. This may be as simple as being mindful of the image used to advertise the position- men in hard hats do not scream ‘gender diverse workplace’

In the classroom, educators can:
  • Invite STEM role models to speak to the class. Presenting a successful female scientist or engineer proves to girls that it’s not a career journey they will make a alone
  • Work with industry players who are known to have female recruitment programs to ensure your female graduates find sustainable, rewarding employment
  • Confront stereotypes through education. Female engineers are the minds behind some of Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft’s most successful ventures

We have a long way to go before we see an equal STEM workforce but the discussion has begun and initiation is often the hardest step.

Tell your daughter you think her science project is awesome. Ask your female colleague how she’s going. Compliment a friend on one of her ideas rather than how she looks. We need to empower the next generation of female minds in STEM and we need to do it now.

Claire Dowler is a Conference Producer with Akolade. She recently graduated with a double degree: a Bachelor of Journalism and a Bachelor of Media and Communications Studies majoring in International Communication. Claire minored in sarcasm and puns.

A ballroom-dancer who collects salt and pepper shakers and volunteers for animal rescue, you might say Claire has eclectic interests.

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