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Pathways to Equity in STEM symposium

Pathways to Equity in STEM Symposium


Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith


3 April 2019


On the first of December last year I was appointed by the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, The Hon Karen Andrews, as Australia’s inaugural Women in STEM Ambassador.   

My role is to work across all STEM disciplines, with government, the research and education sector and industry, to drive change for gender equity in STEM.  

That means supporting government and community-led programs that make STEM more accessible for women and girlsAs a priority, I aim to facilitate better evaluation, co-ordination and sharing of best practice across the country.   

It means leading national efforts to break down cultural and systemic barriers to women’s progression in education and workplaces. It means collaborating with industry, SMEs, universities, VET providers, Chief Scientists and peak bodies to improve efficiency and co-ordinate our activities. It also means working with organisations like Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE), Male Champions of Change, Superstars of STEMand the Academies to deliver the results we need to boost our STEM capabilities.  

Much of my work focuses on communication. For example: 

  • Visiting schools and colleges around the country to advise students, teachers, and parents about the social benefits of STEM.   
  • Listening to teachers’ perspectives and deeply understanding the roadblocks that can prevent them from delivering STEM education in a way that motivates and engages all students.   
  • Sharing what works – and that means identifying educational programs and partnerships that are student-driven, collaborative and multi-disciplinary. And encouraging government and industry to support the very best.  
  • Across the sectorI do everything I can to drive improvements to workplace culture – because this will help us retain our highly-trained STEM experts 
  • And of course, my focus today is on supporting the STEM community to implement the Decadal Plan for Women in STEM 

I want to congratulate everyone who has contributed to the Decadal Plan, from the participants in community consultations, the many informal advisors and stakeholder groups, fellow members of the Expert Working Group and Academy staff who have worked extremely hard over the past few months to deliver what I think is a very professional result. 

The Decadal Plan offers a vision to build a strong and diverse STEM workforce that is fit for our future economic challenges. 

 To do this, we need to break down the systemic barriers to STEM participation for women and other under-represented groups, in areas such as Engineering, ICT, and the physical and mathematical sciences.  

 Barriers such as a chronic lack of female teachers, mentors and role models in many subjects, leading to lower feelings of self-efficacy amongst young women in these subjects.  

 And for those who do enter the STEM workplace, a lack of female colleagues, especially in leadership positions, coupled with a lack of career progression, that can make workplaces feel hostile and careers seem stagnant. 

 We’ve been talking about this problem for decades –I’m sure there are some veterans in this room nodding their heads, knowing that they’ve heard it all before.  

I applaud those who’ve stuck with it – after all, we’ve made many advances, both in community-led action and top-down commitment to increase inclusion in STEM.  

For example, the Male Champions of Change program has taken a significant number of male leaders through a pretty rigorous process of exploration and learning. This has catalysed some major action that has led to positive changes in workplaces around Australia. The ‘all roles flex’ is an exemplar of this, and the ‘panel pledge’ is another.  

Another exemplar in this space is the SAGE pilot of Athena SWAN in Australia.  

But, in areas like engineering and IT, the fraction of female students enrolled in university coursesis stagnant or in decline.  

The gender pay gap in STEM is significant – a 2018 report by Professionals Australia showed that 32 percent of men earn in the top income bracket (more than 104k), whereas only 12per cent of women earn within this bracket. Much of this was attributed to occupational segregation. 

Only nine per cent of people STEM-qualified through Vocational Education and Training are female.  

And women in the STEM workforce are still vastly under-represented in senior positions.  

We need commitment from all stakeholder groups, from schools through to further and higher education providers and employers, to tackle these gaping disparities.  

Wneed to remain deeply focused on actions that address the root causes of inequity.  

Not to shoehorn more women into a broken system. 

We need to commit to circuit breakers  bold actions – because we won’t achieve lasting change by embarking on more of the same incremental work.  

We need to focus on appraising our systems as a whole, and recast the norms of work.  

That’s why I’m delighted that the Women in STEM Decadal Plan has focused on the big picture, on dismantling the structural barriers facing Women in STEM.   

Now the next phase of this work begins.  

And implementing the plan is down to all of us.   

So what can we – in this room – do? 

There are six main opportunities identified in the Decadal Plan. 

The first is Leadership 

The plan calls for stronger leadership and co-ordination across the STEM ecosystem to improve diversity outcomes.  

This challenge bids us to acknowledge the status quo, monitor progress towards clear targets and to share our learnings with others. There are many ways to do this, but I feel that formal, public commitments are best. 

The second is Evaluation.  

There is a strong call to establish a national Women in STEM program evaluation framework to guide decisionmaking and drive investment into measures that work. 

This task is vital – and an area in which my office is very keen to contribute. 

Number three, Workplace Culture.  

We need to create workplaces that are inclusive, respectful, free from discrimination and bias, and supportive of flexible work. 

This is one of our greatest challenges; and one we MUST tackle to reduce female (and male) attrition rates from STEM 

SAGE is doing very well in tackling workplace culture – and I strongly welcome the funding announcement made by the government last week to support the next phase of SAGE 

But we need to deepen our commitment to the workplace health and safety of staff, to ensure that workplaces are respectful and free from discrimination and harassment. And it is my view that we should consider linking workplace culturto funding if required. We should also take a broader view than just the higher education and research sectors and learn from what has been achieved in industry to drive cultural change. 

The fourth opportunity in the Decadal Plan is Visibility 

We must strive for nothing less than equal representation of women in the media, public events, boardrooms and classrooms, providing diverse role models for all Australians. 

This will require firm commitments from media organisations – and I look forward to working with them to discuss what best practice looks like 

The fifth opportunityEducation

We need to build a stronger education system that supports girls to study STEM subjects and equips them with the skills and knowledge they need to participate in STEM careers. 

Now I’ll spend a bit of time on this one, because I have spent the past four months travelling around Australia, speaking with students about STEM careers and learning from front-line educators about what is and isn’t working.   

I’m seeing clear patterns in what makes a successful STEM educational program – that is one that engages both male and female students. 

The ones that work well benefit from strong and mutually-beneficial relationships between schools and industry experts. They feature student-led projects, with highly collaborative and practical learning across disciplines, supported by teachers with excellent access to professional development opportunities. 

Professional learning for teachers is vital. Teachers sing the praises of programs like Little Scientists and the STEMX Academy, which provide professional learning for teachers and help create communities of educators who feel empowered to deliver STEM content  

But I’ve also heard from teachers from outside the major centres, for example in Tasmania and the Northern Territory, who have paid hundreds of dollars out-of-pocket to attend professional development sessionsCosts are prohibitive for schools too – even if travel costs are paid for, teacher cover is expensive and impractical. 

So, wstill have a very long way to go to achieve the basics in many areas.  

The final opportunity identified in the Decadal Plan is Action with Industry 

And in particular, empowering Small to Medium Enterprises (SMEs) to engage in this work. 

SMEs make up the majority of the Australian business landscape, but their smaller size and resource constraints mean that they often don’t have access to guidance or solutions to address gender equity.  

So, we need a national gender equity framework for SMEs to ensure that small to medium enterprises gain the benefits of a diverse, inclusive and highly-skilled workforce.  

And that won’t work unless it is driven by the experts – the small businesses themselves.  

Changing the system will require bold leadership.  

That means all of us, stepping up.   

As leaders in STEM we need to challenge ourselves today to appraise what measures our organisations can take to contribute towards the goals of the Women in STEM Decadal Plan.  

This commitment could take many forms, but I would like to suggest one or two.  

For employers of STEM-qualified workers, I hope that your commitment would include a formal organisational response to the Women in STEM Decadal Plan, as well as a public pledge to action  

One form this could take is detailed response to the Decadal Plan published on your organisation’s websitewith a social media campaign to raise awareness of your commitment. This could be followed by annual updates on your progress. Perhaps with the implementation team we could agree on a timeframe for these commitments, so that they are released at the same time and collated centrally.   

This act of making a public commitment in response to the Decadal Plan is essential. It will ensure that the whole community is pulling in the same direction, learning from each other and building our momentum.   

This is very important step in turning this vision into a reality. 

So how might your organisation contribute to the success of the plan?  

For large companies, consider how you can become an exemplar – an organisation on which others model their efforts. Think about how to use your influence and funds to support proven, effective initiatives for STEM inclusion. Look for opportunities to partner with schools to share information about STEM careers – but engage in evaluated, best-practice partnerships. 

For SMEs, this cultural change work can be more challenging, but there are many examples of success stories highlighted in the plan. Today, you can make a public commitment to deliver an action plan in response to the Decadal Planusing that knowledge and tailor it to your circumstances. 

For the education and research sectors, ensure that every part of the education pathway gives the right signals and incentives to girls to continue with their STEM studies. Be critical in addressing structural issues and implement measures that support women to participate and progress in their careers. And in the workplace, you can make sure that the right incentives and messages are being given about non-research work. To ensure that your organisation is effectively recognising achievement outside traditional publication-based metrics.  

Let’s also recognise that the majority of tertiary STEM education is within the VET sector – so we urgently need to start conversations about how to fix the traditional exclusion of women in this sector.  

So – what does success look like?  

Imagine this:  It’s 2030 

Australia’s education system trains and rewards excellent STEM teachers, who deliver curriculum that is engaging to a broad range of students. In STEM classrooms, collaborative projects are motivated by real-world problems that are investigated by students using multi-disciplinary approaches. Teachers, students and parents have a clear understanding of the many career possibilities that STEM brings.  

Workplaces are free from harassment and discrimination, respectful of diversity, and structured to support the needs and preferences of their employees. Men across the country are engaged as part of the solution. They are intolerant of inappropriate behaviour, challenge entrenched beliefs and take up parental or carers leave on an equal basis, thereby balancing their careers with raising a family.   

Boards and senior leadership teams are full of diverse talent, bringing a wealth of new approaches to solving problems. These workplaces are more creative, productive, profitable and successful. Their teams make objectively better decisions.  

Leaders examine and report on gender outcomes within organisations, to their Boards and shareholders, and they are accountable for delivering against KPIs for their business. 

Mature systems of anonymised decision-making reduce the negative impact of our unconscious biases. 

Because they’ve invested in their culture, their staff and their practices, these workplaces generate greater profits and returns, win more grants, publish more highly-cited papers, deliver better STEM training and education, and achieve better policy and public outcomes. 

Every part of the economy and the industries within it actively implement and monitor diversity policies. Evaluations of these efforts drive informed decisions and investments, are a source of national pride and a benchmark against which other nations measure themselves.  

As a nation, we are proud and prosperous. 

 Is this something you want to be a part of?  

 I hope so – and deeply believe in our collective ingenuity to address these issues. 

 I pledge today to support this process every step of the way, as the Australian Government’s Women in STEM Ambassador. 

 I look forward to hearing your commitments and to reading your organisational responses to the Decadal Plan. 

And I look forward to working with you all, to build a stronger Australian STEM workforce.