On 19 November 2018, the Hon Karen Andrews MP, Minister for Industry, Science and Technology convened the second meeting of the Industry, Innovation and Science Women’s Advisory Roundtable in Sydney.
In opening the meeting, Minister Andrews reflected on her own personal experiences, noting that the rate of female representation in mechanical engineering had increased by around 1.5 per cent over some 30 years. Based on this rate of change, parity would be achieved in 1000 years.
The Minister acknowledged that some sectors did have higher levels of female participation, noting that employers should seek to increase representation consistent with benefits, rather than being driven by policies or targets alone. She emphasised that there is a need to equip women to ensure that they can take up opportunities as they arise.
In turn, each of the attendees outlined their intent and expectations. Roundtable members made a number of observations: women are underrepresented in high profile positions of power, they accept lower levels of pay and wait until later in their careers to apply for prestigious or highly competitive grants or senior positions. It was further noted that gender diversity facilitates better outcomes around the Board table.
It was agreed that issues remained and that the argument that equity would be achieved, given time, had not played out. Ms Ann Sherry AO, Convener of the Male Champions of Change (MCC) Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) initiative and invited guest at the Roundtable, made it clear that change can be quick when you are deliberate.
Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith, also an invited guest at the Roundtable, provided an outline of the issues that she will explore when she steps into the role of the Women in STEM Ambassador in early 2019. She highlighted the importance of early education and the need to support teachers to deliver engaging, gender‑balanced and relevant content to inspire students.
Roundtable members discussed a range of case studies that had been developed by the group, that showcase individuals and businesses. The aim of the case studies is to highlight role models and corporate activities that support gender equity publicly.
Presentations were provided on the STEM MCC initiative, the Australian school curriculum, and higher education and early career research opportunities. Ms Sherry noted that change must be led by those in power, with men and women working together to affect change. She noted that in many cases male leaders had been unaware of the trials and tribulations of their female counterparts. The MCC initiative had opened the dialogue.
It was noted that large companies were starting to make changes but, given the Australian economy, small-to-medium enterprises had a critical role to play in encouraging equity and that the mechanisms to facilitate this would require additional consideration.
Ms Margaret Leggett of the Department of Education and Training provided information on the Australian curriculum and noted that education to support equity should start as early as preschool, given biases and perceptions that were shown in early childhood. There is a need for strong, public female role models so that girls can see themselves as leaders, particularly in STEM disciplines, to break the cycle of inequality. It was agreed that opportunities need to be identified for girls, perhaps as early as at primary school age, so that they can identify a range of pathways, as highlighted by career advisors and mentors.
Professor Sharon Robinson, a female leader profiled as a University of Wollongong Woman of Impact and Antarctic research trailblazer, noted that middle-aged men still hold most top positions at universities. Grant and career structures disadvantaged women, with periods of hiatus associated with caring or maternity leave being penalised. The need to train internationally was also a barrier to women.
But change could be effected – globalisation and connectivity supported international collaborations, without the need for physical co-location. Granting bodies could also reconsider their criteria so as not to disadvantage those taking periods of maternity or paternity leave.
It was also noted that fellowships were considered important for career progression, and that Australia’s network of highly influential academies could have a role in achieving greater gender equity. They could do this through membership targets, consistent with the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering diversity and inclusion policy which states that women should constitute 50 per cent of all new Fellows elected to the Academy by 2025.
In summing up the meeting, Minister Andrews and Roundtable members agreed that with good intent we as a collective do many small things. But it is not enough – step change is required. The Roundtable will consider its future focus by the end of the year and develop a work plan in early 2019.