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Universities Australia Luncheon – Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith

Universities Australia Luncheon – Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith  

Australian Government Women in STEM Ambassador & Professor, UNSW 

28 February 2019 

 

On the 1st of December, I was appointed by the Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science as the Australian Government’s Women in STEM Ambassador. My background is astrophysics – I’ve spent the past 15 years carrying out fundamental research at some of the world’s great astronomical observatories. 

But now, for the next two years – my role is to focus on Australia’s STEM stars of the future. To advocate for gender equity in STEM, build the visibility of women working in STEM and to drive cultural and social change.  

The government created the Women in STEM Ambassador portfolio because the economic imperative for greater female participation is overwhelming. According to the Office of the Chief Scientist, advanced physical and mathematical sciences make a direct contribution to the Australian economy of around $145 billion a year, about 11 per cent of GDP. According to PwC, upskilling just one per cent of the Australian workforce into STEM roles would add $57 billion to our GDP. Since only 16 per cent of STEM roles are currently filled by women, imagine the change gender equity could make.   

But it’s not just an economic imperative. As a society we have a duty to make sure that women can equally participate in the high-growth areas of technologically-skilled jobs. We simply can’t have a situation where half the population is ill-equipped to take part in vast areas of employment as technology evolves.  

So where can universities drive the greatest change? My first honorable mention would go to the SAGE initiative – Science in Australia Gender Equity – the use of evidence-based approaches to inform and track targets towards workplace equity. I know that many of you are actively engaged with this excellent program, and it’s really about getting leaders to ask the important questions: ‘for what will I hold myself accountable?’. And I ask you that question today – for what, in 2019, will you hold yourself accountable? 

Might your target be to evaluate your university’s schools’ engagement programs with a gender lens? University engagement with schools can make a really positive difference to students. In particular, strongly evidence-based programs can enable young people to see clear pathways to higher education and employment in STEM.  By evaluating programs rigorously, including through a gender lens, Universities can ensure that engagement programs match their aspiration for inclusion in the STEM subjects.  

A common pitfall is that it’s far easier to target the low hanging fruit – the local private boys’ or girls’ schools for example.  Some universities fall into the trap of targeting particular schools for particular subjects, because that is where previous intakes have come from. But by doing so we miss the point.  There is great STEM talent in girl’s schools and in public schools, including those in regional and remote areas.  And we should be encouraging and servicing all our talent.  

Could your target be to evaluate the learning environment itself? If a female Physics or Engineering student in your university is already contending with a predominantly male environment, it is enormously important to provide a suitable learning space that doesn’t further alienate. This seems obvious, but I can’t tell you how many Physics departments I’ve been to that are decorated with ancient pictures celebrating the achievements of old, dead, white men harking from an era when women were either directly or indirectly excluded from scientific careers. Nothing says ‘you don’t belong’ more than poorly-designed learning spaces.   

Removing these cues to young women that they don’t belong in STEM is vital. Research shows that a lack of visible female role models is a consistent factor that discourages girls from pursuing STEM careers. Rip out the old and create environments that acknowledge and celebrate the contemporary STEM workforce. Changes like this are inexpensive and frighteningly simple.  

And finally, can you hold yourself accountable for structural change that could have a positive knock-on effect on girls’ high-school STEM education?  

A question that has been raised time and time again in my consultations with people working on the front-line of STEM education in this country is whether the ATAR, combined with a lack of pre-requisite subjects for many STEM degrees, is worsening the gender gap in STEM.  

The emphasis placed by schools, parents and students on maximizing their ATAR can be enormous, and this can amplify the differences in self-efficacy experienced by young men and young women in mathematics and physical sciences. As girls observe a lack of role models, they increasingly come to the position that STEM is not for them, with studies showing that significant differences emerge as early as age six.  

This, combined with a pressure to maximise their ATAR by avoiding the subjects deemed ‘too challenging’ by many parents and teachers, is it any wonder that so many girls are shunning STEM subjects in their final years of schooling?  

Universities could play an important role in changing the status quo.  Whether this is by requiring appropriate pre-requisite subjects for STEM-related degrees, or by engaging girls in high schools with pathways into fulfilling lifelong STEM careers, we need to act. 

As the Australian Government’s Women in STEM Ambassador, I look forward to listening to your experiences and ideas on these issues, hearing how you are holding yourself and your leadership teams accountable for positive change, and of course, to working with you towards a better, more equitable future.