Cleoniki Kesidis, a professional who has left the STEM workforce, was recently quoted as saying:
The Girls in STEM movement should focus on fixing the issues that make women quit — by changing workplace culture and policies and by training and supporting women already in the field — instead of recruiting more girls. Pouring more girls into this broken system is as useless as pouring water into a leaky bucket. Increased numbers of women could solve some of the problems, but that critical mass can’t be reached if women keep quitting at this rate.
The National Innovation and Science Agenda’s (NISA) initiatives to increase women’s participation include $13 million over five years to encourage more women to choose to work in STEM research, related careers, startups and entrepreneurial firms. Specific initiatives include:
- establishing a new group of ‘Male Champions of Change’ focused on STEM-based and entrepreneurial industries.
- partnering with the private sector, community groups and educational organisations to foster interest in STEM and entrepreneurship amongst women and girls and celebrate female role models in STEM through a grant program.
- sponsoring the Curious Minds program – as part of an Australian Government funded initiative, 54 school girls will be brought to Canberra in December for the first national all-girls Curious Minds STEM extension learning and mentoring program. School girls from diverse backgrounds will spend four days learning science, informatics and mathematics, mentored by inspiring women in science, including Professor Angela Moles (2013 Life Scientist of the Year), and young innovators such as Microsoft’s Esther Mosad.
There is no doubt encouraging greater numbers of women and girls to undertake and complete STEM degrees, providing role models, males championing change and encouraging women entrepreneurs are vital to increasing the participation rates of women in STEM. But they’re not the whole story. As Kesidis points out, the attrition of women from the STEM workforce is the vital second part of the equation in creating a sustainable STEM workforce over the longer-term.
A Professionals Australia survey of women in STEM found that 31 per cent of women surveyed expected to leave their profession within five years – the figure was 75 per cent for women working in the private sector.
The Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) project is being supported as part of the NISA Agenda to include more Australian science and research institutions. There is no doubt this is a comprehensive project with considerable resources and commitment from government and the research sector that is tackling the complex issues that lead to women’s attrition from the STEM research workforce. The problem at this stage of the SAGE rollout of course is that it’s limited to the STEM faculties in universities – a significant but small part of the total university population and an even smaller part of the STEM workforce.
While ensuring a strong supply of work-ready STEM graduates from universities is critical, equally important is the issue of removing the obstacles, barriers and biases which operate as disincentives for women remaining in the STEM workforce. So as well as initiatives to encourage women and girls into STEM fields, an effective long-term solution will require addressing the complex range of factors that operate to disadvantage women in employment generally as well as the factors particular to the STEM workforce that operate to create disadvantage and lead to attrition from the sector.
The attrition of so many women scientists is a significant waste of expertise, talent and investment – only by creating policy initiatives to both increase the participation rates of women and address the attrition of women from the STEM workforce – within the academy and beyond – can we expect any real shift to fully and fairly exploiting our STEM talent base.
Chris Walton, CEO Professionals Australia
 Kesidis, C. (2017). Girls in STEM culture is failing both girls and STEM.