This page belongs to: Advancing Women in STEM Strategy

The role of government: Leading the way for gender equity in STEM

The National Science Statement, released by the Government in 2017, reflects the principle that the Government will both show and promote leadership in actively addressing inequality in science education, participation and employment.

The Statement identifies three roles for the Government in the science system – a participant, a supporter and an enabler. In addressing the issue of gender diversity in science, all three of these roles of Government are relevant.

The Government participates in the STEM system, including as an employer of STEM professionals

The Government is committed to ensuring that women working in STEM roles across government are valued and supported. The Government recognises that ‘STEM roles’ encompass a broad range of activity within government, from those who undertake research in a publicly funded research agency (PFRA) to those working to support our IT systems.

The Government is also an employer of women with STEM qualifications who play an important role working across a variety of non-STEM roles. This helps to ensure our Government policy and programs are evidence-based, using the critical thinking and problem solving skills that a STEM education can provide.

As an employer, the Government must take action to support its workforce and model best practice to the broader sector.


Five[35] PFRAs are currently participating in the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) program, an initiative which is advancing gender equity in the higher education and research sector. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) both received bronze accreditation as part of the first cohort in 2018. Through programs such as SAGE, our PFRAs are ensuring that their culture and workplaces support the full participation of women and enable them to contribute at all levels, including as senior leaders in STEM fields.

Across government, many departments have in place initiatives to support women working in STEM roles, such as scholarships, internships and mentoring programs, particularly targeting areas such as IT where women are significantly underrepresented. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) Women in Broadcast Technology Scholarships has helped increase the representation of women in technologist roles at the ABC from 2.4 per cent in 1993 to 15.4 per cent in 2016. The Digital Transformation Agency’s Women in IT Executive Mentoring Program (WITEM) is helping to attract and retain talented women with IT skills within the Australian Public Service and increase the gender diversity of senior IT employees. To date over 780 participants have been involved, with many past participants attributing professional confidence and career growth to their completion of the program. In 2010, KPMG undertook an independent review of WITEM, which was found to be highly regarded by participants and to represent value for money. In 2018 WITEM received the Australian Public Service Commission Gender Equality award for its work in addressing underrepresentation of women in the IT profession.

The Government supports action on gender equity in STEM through a number of initiatives

The Government supports and invests in a range of activities intended to increase women’s participation in STEM. The Government, as appropriate, is focusing its support on long-term strategic interventions that will effect national change or target areas of particular need, and encourages evaluation to gauge whether initiatives are achieving their intended outcomes and shape future interventions.


The Government has supported the delivery of a range of STEM gender equity initiatives through the Women in STEM and Entrepreneurship (WISE) grants program which has provided an opportunity to pilot or champion initiatives that boost the participation of girls and women in STEM education and careers, including as entrepreneurs. Announced under the National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA), the WISE program has already provided $8 million to support 46 projects and will continue to provide up to $1 million per year to support targeted STEM gender equity initiatives.

The WISE grants program provides a vehicle for the Government to continue to support projects that are identified and led by the STEM community. The Government will look to target funding under the WISE program to focus on key strategic initiatives, for example targeting disciplines with particularly low levels of participation, such as engineering or information technology, or scaling up existing, successful initiatives. The Government will also ensure evaluation of project impacts and outcomes is undertaken as a condition of funding.

The Government undertakes a range of science engagement activities, including through the Inspiring Australia – Science Engagement Programme, and will continue to work collaboratively with other levels of government, business and the community to prioritise activities with a demonstrated focus on diversity. Through the new Eureka Prize for STEM Inclusion, funded under the Inspiring Australia program and to be awarded for the first time in 2019, the Government is recognising and awarding successful initiatives that have led to greater inclusion in STEM of typically underrepresented groups, including girls and women.

The Government enables action on gender equity in STEM through its role as a leader and advocate shaping the science system

How the broader STEM community responds to issues of gender inequity can be shaped by the institutional arrangements and regulations put in place by the Government. The signals the Government provides to the sector are important in helping to shape it, both locally and globally.

The government can also lead and advocate for greater evaluation and data collection. There are a large number of initiatives focused on supporting greater participation of girls and women in STEM, which are led across the STEM sector, but very little evaluation on impact. The Government can ensure that the initiatives it supports are appropriately evaluated. This will assist in ensuring that we understand what works and can implement it more broadly, and provide an important signal to the sector. The accurate and timely collection and analysis of data is also key so we can better understand where we are now, where we want to go and how we are progressing towards this.

Many economies, particularly in the developed world, struggle with the underrepresentation of women across the STEM sector. Around the world, the issue of STEM gender equity is a common issue that governments are recognising the need to step up on and prompt action, whether through legislation or other government funded initiatives, to address. The Australian Government is helping to shape this global conversation.


Our national research funding bodies, the Australian Research Council (ARC) and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) are key funders of the research system and through their work, helping to set clear expectations and shape the culture of the STEM sector. The ARC requires institutions administering ARC funding to comply with their obligations under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 and has required the last two rounds for ARC Centres of Excellence to have in place gender equity plans. The NHMRC similarly requires institutions administering NHMRC funding to adhere to all Australian laws and have policies and procedures that support the progression and retention of women in health and medical research. For example, NHMRC requires all institutions administering its funding to have an institutional strategy to address the underrepresentation of women in senior positions, have working arrangements that cater for individuals with carer responsibilities and employment strategies that encourage the recruitment, retention and progression of women in health and medical research, as well as strategies to address the need for the provision of support for childcare.

The Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, through the Business Grants Hub, will develop best practice guidelines by the end of 2019 to ensure that all grants programs, including those supporting STEM activity, are administered in such a way that do not disadvantage women. The department recently took action to ensure that the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science provide every opportunity for women to be nominated and considered fairly in the program, including introducing unconscious bias training for the Prizes committees, evaluating the guidelines for gendered or barrier language and implementing a communications campaign to encourage nominations from a diverse pool of candidates.

Internationally, Australia has advocated through the G20 for greater participation of women in the digital economy. The opportunities of the digital age are firmly grounded in STEM. Through the Bridging the Digital Gender Divide report (2018) commissioned by Australia through the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the Government is investing in an evidence based approach to unlocking the benefits of greater participation by girls and women in technological development. This global response positions Australia’s highly skilled STEM workforce at the forefront of emerging opportunities, regardless of gender.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Institute of Statistics ranks participation of women in STEM in the East Asia and Pacific region poorly – second last of eight regions, with women making up on average just 23 per cent of the research workforce.[36] The Government is developing a regional framework for STEM gender equity with our partners in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). The work leverages Australia’s gender equity leadership in the region, and presents a model for greater collaboration.

Bilateral relationships underpin our support for STEM gender equity in the region, and generate opportunities for deep partnerships, both at the government level as well as at the institutional level. On 22 February 2019, the Australian and New Zealand Governments announced an inaugural Women in STEM bilateral dialogue. This bilateral partnership with one of our closest allies demonstrates and recognises the importance of gender equity in building a strong international environment to enable economic success through STEM capability.

Case study

Women leading the way in STEM

Dr Cathy Foley leads the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) as Chief Scientist.


  1. Australian Institute of Marine Science, Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Defence Science and Technology Group, Geoscience Australia.
  2. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, Women in Science, June 2018, UNESCO, viewed 10 February 2019.