A national study among Australian females has revealed the substantial gap in young girls continuing to pursue STEM-related study beyond high school, despite four in five (81 per cent) believing STEM is critical to Australia’s future.

The research reveals that just 18 per cent of women go on to study STEM subjects at a tertiary level – representing a 50 per cent drop-off rate from the 36 per cent of girls studying STEM subjects in year 11 and 12.

Meanwhile, the majority of parents agree that a STEM-skilled workforce is important for the economy (90 per cent).

Participation drops even further after undergraduate study, with only four per cent of girls studying STEM at a post graduate level and a low 2.5 per cent at a Masters/PhD level.

This follows the findings of a recent government report which found that Australia women’s participation in STEM-qualified occupations makes up only 13 per cent of the science and technology industry.

The research, conducted by hair care brand Sunsilk, also found that only seven per cent of women and girls feel empowered to choose a career in STEM, with key factors being gender imbalance (56 per cent) and feelings of a STEM career being inaccessible to women (20.6 per cent).

Currently, almost one in 10 (9.5 per cent) of women surveyed feel pressured by society to choose a career considered ‘more fitting’ for women.

Closing the gap could start in the home. Young girls’ self-believe and career choices are overwhelmingly impacted by their mothers, with almost two in three girls (64 per cent) citing their mums as their most influential role models.

At the same time, mums feel largely unequipped to support their daughters in this space: currently only one in 10 (9.9 per cent) of mothers feel they have a strong understanding and knowledge of STEM skills to impact to their daughters.

Government initiatives

These dramatically low participation rates are against a backdrop of keen interest to bolster female participation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers from the Federal Government.

Stereotypical views about STEM study and careers and a lack of role models are some of the factors that influence girls’ early interest in STEM, prompting a range of strategies to make women more visible in STEM, such as the Future You initiative announced late last year.

Meanwhile, a national government data report on girls’ and women’s participation in STEM reveals that the proportion of women enrolled in university STEM fields of education reached 36 per cent in 2019 (more than 81,000 women), up from 24 per cent in 2015 (more than 70,000 women).

The government acknowledges that the collective efforts being led by the education, research and business sectors, and government, are starting to have an impact.

But significantly more change is needed to achieve the vision of gender equity in STEM in Australia by 2030.

Decoding STEM

To empower girls and their mums to help build practical STEM skills, Sunsilk is launching its Rethink Pink campaign, partnering with Girl Geek Academy to deliver a series of four interactive online workshops.

These will be delivered online in September, with registrations now being accepted.

Girl Geek Academy co-founder Sarah Moran says the organisation is on a mission to teach one million women technology skills by 2025.

“The perspectives and experiences of Australian women and girls from all diversities is crucial in contributing towards innovation and progress for the STEM industry in Australia.”

Girl Geek Academy works with teachers, schools, corporates and startups to increase the number of women with professional technical and entrepreneurial skills.