Representation of girls and women in STEM-related jobs may have increased modestly from 2019 to 2020, but a persistent pay gap means that industry still needs “significantly more change” to meet the government’s target of gender equality by 2030 – with many tech-industry figures concerned that the new minister in charge of STEM development could be poisonous for the cause.
The latest update to the annual STEM Equity Monitor – an annual data series launched last year to measure female engagement with STEM industries – flagged improvements in representation, with the proportion of women working across all STEM-qualified industries increasing from 24 per cent in 2016 to 28 per cent in 2020.
Women accounted for 36 per cent of enrolments in STEM-related university educational fields, up from 34 per cent in 2015 – leading the report’s authors to suggest that “the collective efforts being led by the education, research and business sectors, as well as by government, are starting to have an impact.”
Yet while the proportion of women in key management and senior managerial roles increased – from 18 per cent in 2016 to 23 per cent last year – men were 1.8 times more likely to be working in a STEM-qualified occupation than their female peers.
Despite decreasing the gender pay gap in STEM fields from 22 per cent in 2016 to 19 per cent last year, men nonetheless earned $28,994 more than women in STEM careers in 2020 – an even bigger gap than the $25,534 gap across all industries.
The STEM Equity Monitor uses the Microsoft Power BI analytics platform to build a growing volume of time-series data tracing key indicators over time.
While girls’ mean NAPLAN numeracy scores have improved marginally over time across the past six years at Years 3, 5, 7, and 9, that growth has been mirrored by boys – perpetuating a problematic gap in measured STEM ability that was also reflected in Australia’s declining results against international benchmarks.
The data also show a chronic gender imbalance in teaching roles, with just 28 per cent of university STEM teaching and research roles occupied by women – far less than the 46 per cent figure across all disciplines.
Interestingly, men and women found it equally difficult to access scarce ARC and NHMRC research grant funding.
Environmental factors were also identified as an issue: while 90 per cent of parents agreed that a STEM-skilled workforce is important for the Australian economy, – and 89 per cent believe mathematics and technology skills are important for future employment – just 38 per cent of mothers were reported to be having weekly conversations about STEM at home.
This was far less than the 51 per cent who reported having such conversations with their fathers – 47 per cent of whom had STEM qualifications, compared with just 20 per cent of mothers.
When it was launched a year ago by then Minister of Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews, the STEM Equity Monitor was heralded as an important gauge of progress towards improving women’s representation in STEM subjects.
“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it,” Australian Academy of Science (AAS) president Professor John Shine said at the time, flagging the AAS’s own women in STEM analysis and arguing that the government’s 10-year plan for Women in STEM confirmed “most gender equity programs in STEM Australia… lack useful performance data and formal evaluation.”
Yet while the latest figures suggest the needle is heading in the right direction – albeit slowly – some fear the impact of the recent cabinet reshuffle, which saw Andrews promoted away from the innovation portfolio to be replaced by embattled former Attorney-General Christian Porter.
“Australian industry and innovation rely on a flourishing STEM workforce,” Porter noted in launching the 2021 report – which, he said, “allows us to measure and understand the impact of our investments, and make sure we’re travelling in the right direction to achieve gender equity across STEM in the long term.”
Some critics have questioned Porter’s interest in a portfolio that has been branded a “parking lot” for disinterested ministers – with six ministers occupying the position since 2013.
Andrews, whose widely-commended gender-equality efforts include significant funding programs, supporting the Decadal Plan for Women in STEM and creating the STEM Equity Monitor, was a well-regarded exception – but the lingering political stench around Porter has led some to worry out loud whether tech-sector leaders will be as eager to engage with his ministry.
The innovation portfolio “will play the least part” in the Coalition’s upcoming election campaign, technology angel investor Alan Jones recently told the Australian Financial Review, “and there will be nothing to announce” as Prime Minister Scott Morrison tries to keep Porter out of the headlines.
“Having a minister even remotely linked to such allegations creates a huge level of discomfort,” added Sarah Liu, managing director of diversity and inclusion consultancy The Dream Collective, who expects that “in terms of women being at the heart of this portfolio, he’s going to be quite nervous… and women will be quite nervous around him.”