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Harnessing Our Innovation Potential – Male Champions of Change STEM Report Launch

Harnessing Our Innovation Potential – Male Champions of Change STEM report launch 


Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith 


28 August 2019 


I’m here today in my capacity as the Australian Government’s Women in STEM Ambassador. My role is to work across all STEM disciplines, with government, the research and education sectors and with industry, to drive gender equity in STEM.  

As we gaze at our report-card, Australia’s results for Women in STEM are as follows:  

  • Only 17 per cent of STEM-qualified Australians are female. This figure has grown only two per cent in the past decade.  
  • In engineering and IT, the fraction of female students enrolled in university courses is stagnant or in decline. 
  • Women in the STEM workforce are still vastly under-represented in senior positions, making up less than a quarter of all managerial roles. 
  • There is a stubborn and significant gender pay gap in STEM – more than 23 per cent at present. 

We need ongoing commitment from everyone, be that families and schools, the media, educational institutions and employers, to tackle these disparities.  

The good news is, significant investment has been put into programs to address gender equity in STEM. The Federal Government has recently supported the Women in STEM Decadal Plan, the STEM Women database, the Women in STEM and Entrepreneurship grants and my office – the Women in STEM Ambassador. These commitments are driven by the overwhelming economic imperative for greater female participation.  

According to the Office of the Chief Scientistadvanced physical and mathematical sciences contribute around $145 billion a year to the Australian economy, that’s around 11 per cent of GDP. According to PwC, upskilling just 1 per cent of the Australian workforce into STEM roles would add $57 billion to our GDP. Imagine the change gender equity could make to those figures  

But of course, it’s not just an economic imperative. As a society we have a duty to make sure that women can participate equally in these growing areas of our economy and drive technology to be used to improve the quality of all of our lives  

Always focused on solutions, we’re in luck today – with the launch of this fantastic report from MCC STEM on Harnessing Our Innovation Potentialwhich gives a number of clear examples of actions to address the barriers still facing Women in STEM organisations.  

I must say, I have personally found the recommendations in this report very useful as I build my own team in the Women in STEM Ambassador office  

In our first hiring round we fell into the habit of doing things the traditional way  using the standard job templateputting a role description in there  and job done – we posted the job advert with no further thought or effort. After receiving enquiries about flexible work I realised that, although I knew that the workplace would be flexible, I didn’t make that clear in the advert. I was left with a nagging feeling throughout the process that we weren’t really practicing what we preached.  

These things are a learning process, so after a little more consideration, we tried a new approach with our latest hiresWe offered all the roles with an option for full-timepart-time or job-share. We also advertised up-front that the successful candidate could work from a flexible location anywhere within Australia. I took care to distribute the job advert to a range of relevant groups and to promote it more widely  

This time we had a larger number of excellent applicants local, interstate and many international candidatesIt just goes to show that good intentions just aren’t enough. We need to put these into practice.   

There are some other great suggestions on good hiring practice in this report. Here are my stand-outs:  

  • Avoid overly-masculine language in the role description. This can put off candidates who have excellent skills and expertise, but are endowed with lower levels of ‘over-confidence’. ‘Over-confidence’ can sometimes be correlated with gender or ethnic background. 
  • Explain the social impact of the role – this can attract more female candidates 
  • Avoid rigid rules such as 10 years’ experience’, which are simply lazy proxies for what you really want, which is expertise and capability. 
  • Explain flexible work and leave offerings up-front – these things have a big impact on the application cohort.   

These are all great ideas and I will be implementing them all.  

An additional factor affecting our decision-making is unconscious bias. In my self-reflections I have been asking myself, what am I doing to counteract unconscious bias in hiring? The answer for me and probably for most of us is currentlynothing  

That’s why I will shortly be issuing an expression of interest to take part in a national trial of anonymised ranking – that means removing name identifiers and gender pronouns – from applications for jobs, prizes, awards, scholarships and research funding.   

Removing identifiers of name, gender and cultural background is a great way to bypass unconscious bias – and a cheap and simple way too. International trials of anonymised ranking have demonstrated great success.   

A recent multi-year trial of anonymised ranking was carried out by NASA for proposals to use the Hubble Space TelescopeFor more than a decade, the success rates for proposals led by female astronomers were systematically worse than the success rates of their male counterparts. To combat that bias, NASA adopted a system of dual-anonymous review, in which the names of the reviewers and the investigators were revealed to each other only after the review was complete. The early returns of this trial were very impressive: In the last allocation cycle, for the first time in the 18 years of record-keeping, proposals with female leads had a higher success rate than those led by men. The results suggest that dual-anonymous review has the potential to level the playing field, not just for women but for other disadvantaged groups.  

The Irish Research Council also successfully trialled this approach. They anonymised their application process and removed the language of gender bias, disadvantage or deterrent from their judging criteria. In the two years following the introduction of this trial, the proportion of STEM Postdoctoral awards allocated to women rose from 35 per cent to 45 per cent 

Through these trials, and others published in the literature, anonymised ranking has been shown to rapidly reduce the impact of cognitive biases on decision-making  

In the coming weeks I’ll be extending an invitation to MCC STEM membersresearch organisations and funding councils to take part in an Australian trial of anonymised ranking. Participating organisations will be supported by a researcher from my office, who will help design and optimise a trial that is suitable for your context. We will be running this as a co-ordinated national research project and sharing the results widely 

hope that this trial will be a significant catalyst for change, and encourage others to adopt similar practices that lead to a more equitable Australia. 

 As leaders, our responsibility is to drive organisations forward, to make them better. And as we do so, we propel the nation forward. So please join me in this endeavour, take the recommendations from this report and put them directly into practice.  \