When I was in graduate school, an advisor called me into his office and explained to me that although I was very bright and had great “potential”, an academic career would be incompatible with having children. It was only later that I came up with a response – at the time, I was too stunned to ask him if his advice also applied to him, his (overwhelmingly) male colleagues, and all the male graduate students in the department. My confidence took a hit, and I began to question whether I belonged. Would pursuing my dream of becoming an engineering professor mean swimming upstream for the rest of my career? Obviously, I didn’t take his advice.
Seemingly innocuous comments by peers, parents and teachers – “Why do you want to take physics?”, “Engineering? Why would you want to do that?”, or, “I don’t know, honours math is really hard, are you sure you want to do that?” – open the cracks into which doubt and insecurity can gain a foothold very early in a young person’s experience. These micro-barriers can grow into walls plastered with big, unfriendly “do not enter” signs.
A greater push for gender diversity in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) is often written off as political correctness. Women aren’t pursuing careers in STEM fields because they simply don’t want to, the argument goes. The data tell another story.
A systematic review of the literature on gender disparities in STEM cited “masculine culture” as the reason that engineering, computer science and physics are so top-heavy with men. It’s not that women prefer other fields; it’s that they suspect they won’t feel welcome in these particular ones. Until women feel they belong and can succeed in STEM fields, it’s not likely they’ll choose them over more welcoming options.
And yet from a business standpoint, we need more women, not fewer, to join the ranks. Research has cemented a powerful business case for gender diversity in organisations. Stronger female representation translates into better governance, more innovation and bigger profits. Goldman Sachs & JBWere calculated that the rise in female employment since 1974 has boosted Australian economic activity by 22 per cent and that a 6 per cent increase in the female participation rate would boost the level of GDP by 11 per cent. A recent McKinsey report estimated that advancing women’s equality worldwide could add $12 trillion to global GDP by 2025. The more ambitious goal of reaching gender parity in the worldwide labour force could more than double that figure, adding $28 trillion to the global economy.
What this means is that we need a culture change – in our schools, our communities and our workplaces. In particular, if we want to have diversity in STEM, parents and teachers need to change the dialogue by encouraging girls to engage in STEM related experiences. And we need to build a diversity culture in the universities where students are educated and the companies in which they go to work.
This kind of change is easier said than done. If leadership is not intentional about cultural change, nothing will happen. Saying you value diversity but not making fundamental change is like saying you want to lose weight without changing your diet and getting off the couch. It simply won’t work. This is long, generational, societal, cultural change.
So what can institutions do?
- Start by increasing female representation in the STEM workforce and in university science and engineering departments, creating relatable role models for young women. If they see it, they’ll know they can “be” it.
- Check implicit bias. Everyone harbours implicit biases, but those in management and hiring positions have a special responsibility to be aware of how their own implicit stereotyping and bias can affect their decision making, and receive training to guard against it.
- Collect data on salary, recruitment, promotion, retention and leadership, and use it to identify gender disparities and correct them. What is measured can be managed.
- Support and implement people-friendly policies such as access to child care and flexibility for managing family and other responsibilities. Schedule key meetings during core hours and choose team-building activities that make everyone feel welcome.
- Raise awareness among young women about STEM-related fields and careers.
Australian universities must address the gender equity issue. While not as glaring in medicine and health-related fields, where more than 50 per cent of academic and research staff are women, it’s front and centre in engineering, IT and mathematics, where those numbers hover around 20 per cent. And although 50 per cent of junior academics in all STEM fields are female, only about 20 per cent of senior professors are women.
In 2013, when not a single fellow selected by the Australian Academy of Science was female, the Academy responded with Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE), a program of activities designed to improve gender equity and diversity in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM). The Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering joined as a partner in 2015.
Monash is one of 44 institutions participating in a SAGE pilot project based on the Athena SWAN Charter, an evaluation and accreditation framework that has been operating for 10 years in the UK and shown significant results in improving gender diversity and bolstering women’s leadership roles within STEM institutions.
Our actions must show that diversity and inclusiveness are valued, and that women can thrive in STEM fields and organisations. We need the best, brightest and most diverse group of people contributing their talent to coming up with science and engineering solutions to some of the most challenging problems on the planet.
Professor Elizabeth Croft is the new Dean of the Faculty of Engineering atMonash University.