The University of Newcastle, Australia

STEMM and gender parity: lessons from Asia

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

During the past 2 weeks I had the remarkable opportunity to learn how colleagues across Asia are addressing the issues of gender parity in their STEMM (science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine) and innovation workforce as part of an initiative established by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to celebrate International Women’s Day.

Among the many program highlights, I was delighted to address Embassy staff in Jakarta at the launch of the DFAT Strategy on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment hosted by the Australian Ambassador to Indonesia, to participate in a lively panel discussion at the Australian Embassy in Tokyo, to engage with the Australian Ambassador to China and present to senior government, industry and academic leaders in Shanghai, Beijing and Chengdu, and to present lectures to staff and students at Jinan University in Guangzhou and at the University of Hong Kong.

VC speaking for International Womens DayIn every city, I had the privilege of meeting with many exceptional women scientists, entrepreneurs and government and business leaders to discuss the role of different cultural contexts, national and institutional policies, and the impact of the gendered nature of leadership on the aspirations of women and girls. Importantly, we discussed what strategies have been introduced in different nations, jurisdictions and institutions that support gender parity in participation and leadership in the STEMM workforce.

Sharing the Australian experience

In my presentations and in discussions I highlighted the issue that Australia faces in creating new jobs and businesses in industries built on knowledge and ‘know how’ from the STEMM  fields. It is the case that in Australia, over half of science based PhDs are achieved by women, and around half of our early career scientists and researchers are female – but there is a significant attrition in the proportion of these women who move up the career ladder to senior leadership positions in either industry or research in these fields. There is a high ‘quit rate’ of between 39 and 56 percent of women across the science, engineering and technology professions and currently less than 20% of professors in the sciences are women.

This represents a significant waste of expertise, talent and investment. It also challenges our innovation capacity and productivity at a time when it is predicted that up to 40 per cent of jobs across Australia will be lost to automation over the next 20 years and that new jobs will be built on new science and new technologies.

The contributors to the lack of female leadership in the STEMM disciplines in the laboratories, offices and board rooms across Australia are complex. They include issues related to career structures in STEMM disciplines, which have not substantially changed over the last 50 years, as well as the impact of the lack of visible female leadership on the aspirations of emerging female leaders.

Addressing the issues

It is these issues which are being addressed by the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) program, an initiative of the Australian Academy of Science in partnership with the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering set up to address gender equity issues in the STEMM sector. The SAGE program has been adapted from the Athena SWAN Charter in the UK which is an accreditation and improvement program for higher education and research organisations focusing on gender and other forms of inequality. The House of Commons described the program as the “most comprehensive and practical schema to improve academic careers and address gender equity”.

Australia is the first nation outside of the UK and Ireland to pilot the Athena SWAN Charter program. For the next two 2 years, 32 institutions across Australia are taking part in the SAGE initiative to ‘raise the bar’ on gender parity issues including participation, pay and leadership. I am proud that the University of Newcastle is among the first tranche of institutions piloting the Athena SWAN Charter Program and that Professor Deb Hodgson has taken on the role as our ‘SAGE Champion’.

In Hillary Clinton’s first major economic speech of her 2016 presidential campaign, she emphasised the importance of gender equality, because “in a global competition, we can’t afford to leave talent on the sidelines”. At a time when Australia is facing tough economic headwinds and is navigating a transition from an economy based on traditional industries to one driven by innovation, the issue of gender parity has now moved from the periphery to the centre of the Government’s visual field.  So, there is reason for optimism in that what has previously been considered by Australian CEOs to be a difficult issue to solve may benefit from creative solutions across many sectors, including our own. I look forward to our University being at the vanguard of the changes required to build a more resilient workforce that is inclusive of the talents of women, addresses pay inequities and recruits the full input of female leadership.

Please note some of this week’s column was included as an Op-Ed column written by the VC in the Australian Financial Review on 7 March 2016.

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