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Gender gap in AU’s STEM workforce obstructing national prosperity

02 Apr 2019
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A shortage of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) exists worldwide, but a new study suggests Australia may be even further afield.

According to the research – Women in STEM Decadal Plan – launched at Parliament House by the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, Karen Andrews, Australia has not yet made the systemic changes required to achieve diversity in STEM, with the current under-representation and under-utilisation of women in the STEM workforce posing a threat to the nation’s prosperity.

The plan, developed by the Australian Academy of Science in partnership with the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, outlines six opportunities to strengthen gender equity in STEM over the next decade, including establishing a national evaluation framework to guide decision making and drive investment and effort into STEM measures that work.

Australian Academy of Science Fellow and Expert Working Group member, professor Sue O'Reilly says while many organisations are taking actions at an individual level to support the attraction, retention, and progression of women in STEM, extensive stakeholder consultations confirmed there is still an urgent case for cohesive and sustained change.

“Change can commence at the grassroots and this should not be discouraged. However, the systemic and sustained change required to make a step change in achieving gender equity in Australia will primarily occur when led and championed from the top,” says professor O'Reilly.

According to the 2017 Economic Forum’s ‘Gender Gap Report’, closing the gender gap in economic participation by 25% by 2025 could add as much as US$5.3 trillion to the global gross domestic product (GDP) in the same timeframe.

“It's not just an equality perspective that's important here, it's a business imperative,” says Australia's first ambassador for Women in STEM, professor Lisa Harvey-Smith.

“Australia needs to be the clever country again. We need to be getting those large tech companies to stay in Australia and we need to be developing business capabilities around the new economies and become worldwide competitive again.”

Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering vice president of diversity Dr Bruce Godfrey says the plan provides the first opportunity to tackle the issue of gender equity at a national scale and highlights the importance of government, academia, industry, the education sector and the community working together to drive change.

“If this plan and the opportunities contained within it are realised, the STEM graduates of 2030 (9- and 10-year-olds making their way through primary school in 2019, as well as those entering the workforce from other life journeys) will join workplaces that are respectful, free of harassment and discrimination, value diversity, and structured to support a variety of STEM careers that include women in leadership positions,” Dr Godfrey says.