The National Science Statement, released in 2017, articulates the Government’s commitment to the science sector. It outlines the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) as vital building blocks for Australia’s future prosperity and wellbeing.
Rapid technological change is driving new workforce needs. The skills required for work have changed, and will continue to evolve on an increasingly fast basis. Workers need to be able to augment and develop their skills as technology advances in order to fulfil the jobs of the future. STEM skills are critical in this.
STEM skills play a crucial role in innovation, which is a key driver of economic growth. Businesses that innovate are twice as likely to use STEM skills. Research by the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) has found that the integration of STEM skills is important to the success of leading firms and organisations across a wide range of industries. STEM skills, particularly in combination with other interdisciplinary skills – such as entrepreneurialism – provide the problem solving, critical thinking and communication skills that are vital to a wide range of jobs, beyond the narrowly defined traditional disciplines. As many industries become more reliant on technology, the need for STEM skills is becoming increasingly widespread. STEM skills are not just for scientists and engineers – everyone needs some fundamental STEM knowledge, whatever their field of work, as it underpins new and existing industries. A base knowledge of STEM also supports citizen engagement in discussions on many of the big issues facing Australian society – from healthcare to energy use.
Advancing Women in STEM
Australia must have a deeper STEM talent pool. Women are underrepresented in STEM education and careers, and women from minority groups are particularly underrepresented. From reduced confidence in STEM subjects by year four, through to the lower numbers of women STEM professors, the inequality crosses sectors, disciplines, and levels. Girls and women’s underrepresentation across the full pipeline must be addressed if Australia is to fully engage in the opportunities that an increasingly digital, technological, and STEM-driven world will provide.
Gender inequity not only limits the available talent – it is bad for business. Gender diverse companies are 15 per cent more likely to financially outperform their counterparts. The Grattan Institute has estimated that an extra six per cent of women in the workforce could add up to $25 billion to Australia’s Gross Domestic Product. There is an incredible opportunity here for the STEM sector should it achieve greater participation of women.
The causes of the inequality in STEM participation are broad, complex and long-standing. Cultural issues such as bias and stereotyping shape girls and women’s views of STEM from an early age. STEM working environments, which are often male dominated and can have strongly hierarchical natures, can support a higher risk of issues such as sexual harassment.
These are not issues that have simple solutions, nor will we see an overnight change. Increasing the participation of girls and women in STEM requires a system level response with long-term strategic action from across the sector – government, industry, academia and education – to address the cultural and systemic barriers, as well as compliance with relevant legislation and regulations. We need to determine what is working through evaluation, broadly implement what works, and measure the relevant data across the full pipeline – from childhood to senior leadership participation – to track our progress.
This is why the Australian Government has supported the development of a Decadal Plan for Women in STEM, to provide a roadmap for sustained increases in women’s participation in STEM over the next decade. Developed by the Australian Academy of Science and the Academy of Technology and Engineering, the Decadal Plan was released on 1 April 2019. The Decadal Plan will provide high level guidance to the STEM sector in tackling the systemic issues affecting the ongoing participation of women in STEM.
Advancing Women in STEM responds to the issues outlined in the Decadal Plan and forms the Government’s commitment to the sector and to future generations. It outlines where Government can play a role in supporting increased gender equity across the STEM sector. It sets out the Government’s enduring vision for an Australian society that provides equal opportunity for people of all genders to learn, work and engage in STEM.
Decadal Plan for Women in STEM
The Decadal Plan for Women in STEM, developed by the Australian Academy of Science in partnership with the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, provides a guiding framework to set the direction for all in the STEM sector to take action on gender inequity. The plan aims to create a diverse, inclusive and equitable STEM ecosystem, free of gender barriers to participation and progression.
The Decadal Plan sets out six key opportunities to support improved gender equity in STEM:
- Workplace culture
- Industry action
Advancing Women in STEM responds to the Decadal Plan, noting how government can lead the way through its support for gender equity and enable action across the STEM sector, through education, workplaces and the broader culture. The Australian Government will continue to work with the STEM sector and the Academies on the implementation of the Decadal Plan.
-  Office of the Chief Scientist, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: Australia’s Future, Office of the Chief Scientist, Canberra, 2014, viewed 18 January 2019.
-  Australian Council of Learned Academies, Skills and Capabilities for Australian Enterprise Innovation 10, ACOLA, Melbourne, 2016, viewed 2 February 2019.
-  Office of the Chief Scientist, Science, Australia’s Future, p. 20
-  Hunt, V, Layton, D, & Prince, S, Why Diversity Matters, McKinsey & Company, 2015, New York, viewed 18 January 2019.
-  Daley, J, McGannon, C, & Ginnivan, L, Game-changers: Economic reform priorities for Australia, Grattan Institute, Melbourne, 2012, viewed 4 February 2019.
-  National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.