This page belongs to: STEM Equity Monitor

Careers breaks among STEM graduates

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data follows a cohort of 161,000 people who graduated with a university qualification in 2011.

Data shows instances and impacts of career breaks over 5 years. This includes breaks for further study, the arrival of a child or a period of unemployment or very low income, indicated by social security payments.

Graduate career breaks

Compare the proportion of graduates who took a career break between 2012 and 2016 and their income by 2016.

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics 2021 (unpublished)

Data insights

Across the 2011 university graduate cohort, women were more likely than men to take 1 or more career breaks in the period 2012 to 2016 (40% for women, 32% for men).

This was also the case for STEM graduates. Approximately half (49%) of these women and a third of these men took a career break over the period. This was higher than women who graduated with non-STEM (39%) or health qualifications (39%).

Women with a STEM qualification were considerably more likely to take 2 or more career breaks (of any type) during this period (33% with STEM, compared to 21% with non-STEM and 17% with health).

Arrival of a child

STEM-qualified women were less likely to take a break during this period for the arrival of a child than women graduates of non-STEM or health qualifications (10% with STEM, 15% with non-STEM and 20% with health). However, they were more likely than men with STEM (5%) or other qualifications (5% non-STEM and 6% with health).

STEM-qualified women and men were more likely to take breaks for a new child at the end of the data period (2016) than directly following graduation (2012). Men working with a STEM qualification who took a career break for a new child were likely to earn more by 2016 than men who didn’t take any break. They were also more likely to earn more than women who did and didn’t take a career break. This was the case in both the full and part-time cohorts. For example, of those who took a career break and worked full-time, 58% of men and 32% of women earned $75,000 or more.

Of the STEM-qualified women and men who took a career break for a new child:

  • 11% of women and 6% of men were working in a STEM-qualified occupation in 2016.
  • 10% of women and 5% of men were working in a non-STEM-qualified occupation in 2016.
  • 6% of women and 3% of men were working in a health-qualified occupation in 2016.

Both STEM-qualified women and men who took a career break for a new child were slightly more likely to end up in a STEM-qualified occupation in 2016 than those who didn’t take a career break.

Period of unemployment or very low income

The data show periods of unemployment or very low income during 2012 to 2016, without specifying reasons like health, personal reasons or inability to find suitable work.

Women who qualified in STEM in 2011 were more likely to have a period of unemployment or very low income during this period (36%) than women who earned other qualifications (24% non-STEM and 20% health) or STEM-qualified men (26%).

STEM-qualified women and men were far more likely to have a period of unemployment or very low income in the year following graduation (26% of women, 19% of men in 2012), than in 2016 (9% of women, 7% of men).

STEM-qualified women who had a period of unemployment or low income were less likely to be in a STEM-qualified occupation in 2016 than those who didn’t. They were also likely to earn less. This was also the case for STEM-qualified men. For example, 16% of women employed full-time in 2016 after these periods were earning $75,000 or more, compared to 41% of women who didn’t take a break. For men, this was 24% compared to 57%.

Of the STEM-qualified women and men who experienced unemployment or very low income:

  • 25% of women and 17% of men were working in a STEM-qualified occupation in 2016.
  • 38% of women and 34% of men were working in a non-STEM-qualified occupation in 2016.
  • 58% of women and 54% of men were working in a health-qualified occupation in 2016.

Further study

STEM-qualified women from this cohort were much more likely to return to study in the period 2012 to 2016 (receiving study allowance benefits) after their qualification (27%), than those with non-STEM qualifications (12%) or health qualifications (8%). They were also more likely than men with STEM qualifications to do further study (16%).

STEM-qualified women and men were far more likely to return to further study in 2012 directly following graduation (16% of women, 10% of men) than at the end of the data period in 2016 (5% of women, 3% of men).

About the data

Our department commissioned the Australian Bureau of Statistics to undertake this longitudinal study.

ABS examined the occupational outcomes of the 2011 cohort of university graduates for the following 5 years through to 2016. To do this, the ABS analysed the Multi-Agency Data Integration Project (MADIP) Modular Product (2011­­­­­­­­­­­­­­–2016) which is a linked dataset providing anonymised and aggregated analysis of the following:

  • 2011 higher education data
  • 2016 higher education data
  • 2016 Census of Population and Housing data
  • 2010–11 to 2015–16 personal income tax data

This allowed ABS to determine income and occupation details through the years from 2011 until 2016. For each chosen variable of analysis, the outcomes have been explored using one of these datasets. Linkage of datasets is based on the data quality for the particular variable and highest level of linked records with the 2011 higher education data. This may have resulted in differences in total numbers and proportions reported. 

The ABS measured career breaks by social security payments. These include:

  • parenting payments (for example, parental leave pay of 60 days or more, dad and partner pay)
  • unemployment or low income benefits (Newstart allowance, low income card)
  • study allowances (for example, Austudy, ABSTUDY and Youth Allowance of 60 days or more).

We have grouped the qualifications and occupations broadly into STEM, non-STEM and health, and used granular details for analysis where possible. All definitions of education, occupation and industry are consistent with our methodology.

This analysis covers the initial 5 years of graduates’ careers. We will publish further analysis following the 2021 and 2026 censuses to understand how the cohort of 2011 graduates’ careers progress.

Read about the ABS’ Multi-Agency Data Integration Project.

Read more about our methodology and this data.