Australian female STEM workers are deeply unstatisfied and the effects of the Covid pandemic could make the sector’s gender gap deeper, warns Professionals Australia in a report released today.

Women in the professional, technical and services sector only represented 29% of the industry’s university educated workforce and faced a gender pay gap of 22%, the Women Staying in The STEM Workforce report found.

The survey of 957 women working in the sector reflected the conclusions of the 2021 ACS Digital Pulse report which found female representation in the Australian ICT sector was also at 29%.

Earlier this month, Chief Scientist Dr Cathy Foley made an urgent call for cultural change to help encourage women in STEM fields, citing the lack of flexible working arrangements, non-linear career paths, and the poor timing of university careers coinciding with childbearing age as being barriers for retaining women in STEM fields.

The latest report follows an earlier Professionals Australia survey that found STEM workers were overworked, exhausted and suffering from declining morale. That report flagged that over a third of the sector’s workforce were dissatisfied with their working conditions.

Professionals Australia CEO Jill McCabe said “the survey found that many women in STEM planned to leave the industry, with pay, conditions and a lack of career advancement among the top reasons for doing so. The pandemic has also created a further ‘push’ factor.”

28% of respondents said they were looking at leaving the sector for better pay and conditions while 27.6% said the lack of career advancement would drive them out of the field and just over a quarter were searching for a better work/life balance.

The lack of career advancement was reflected in the report which found under-representation in leadership roles, with only 22% of STEM university-qualified managers and 13% of executives being female.

Over half of the respondents, 56.7%, reported suffering direct gender discrimination while 22.9% said their carer status had affected their career while 14.8% said they had been discriminated against on the basis of pregnancy.

“This confirms that we need urgent organisational changes to ensure the retention of women in STEM fields and that increasing the number of female STEM graduates alone isn’t enough,” said McCabe.

“Those who work part-time or flexibly are often seen as less committed to their careers. Being part-time also cuts you off from a lot of progression opportunities.

“This creates a vicious cycle where fewer women make it into senior, hiring positions and, as a result, fewer women in the workforce have access to professional development or are promoted to more senior roles.”

Professionals Australia suggested 50 measures to address the ‘complexities of the changes needed’ with measures ranging from pay equality to options for part-time and flexible work at senior, management and leadership levels.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has only highlighted the crucial role our STEM professionals play in shaping public life and outcomes. It’s only fair this value is reflected in their pay and workplace conditions,” concluded McCabe.

“Urgently addressing the gender pay gap and the organisational factors behind the attrition of women from STEM fields must be part of any plan to re-build the STEM workforce for an equitable post-COVID future.”