The number of women working in science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) occupations grew by 20 per cent in 2021 but women are still under-represented in STEM jobs, according to the latest government data.

The government has published its updated STEM Equity Monitor, an annual look at how many women are in technical and scientific roles around the country.

According to the STEM Equity Monitor, there were 247,000 women working in STEM-qualified roles in 2021, a sizeable increase on the 2020 figures of 205,000 but still far below the 1.3 million men with STEM jobs.

Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith, astrophysicist and Australia’s Women in STEM Ambassador said there needed to be a greater effort from all parts of the country to “address the persistent barriers to participation in STEM education and careers”.

“This is a collective obligation, and we need to be strategic in our actions to advance equity,” Professor Harvey-Smith said.

“This means investing in the proper tools and infrastructure required to drive cultural and structural change and to make organisations accountable.”

STEM qualifications weren’t of interest to all age groups (12-25) who were surveyed about their reasons for not studying STEM, along with the fact STEM studies weren’t related to their desired career.

The proportion of women enrolling into university STEM courses has been gradually ticking up from around 70,000 in 2015 to 87,000 in 2020 with women making up 37 per cent of STEM-related enrolments that year.

Women are far less likely to engage in STEM vocational education and training (VET) courses, however, making up just 16 per cent of STEM VET enrolments in 2020.

That's progress

Misha Schubert, CEO of Science and Technology Australia, said the latest figures showed “real progress” with more women studying STEM degrees.

“That’s hugely important to help transform who sees themselves pursuing a career in STEM, and in changing parental expectations that young women would choose science, maths, engineering and technology degrees,” she said.

“The next urgent challenge is for deeper efforts to tackle the gender pay gap for women in STEM and to propel many more women into senior management and leadership roles in the STEM workforce. STEM employers have a powerful responsibility here.”

According to government data, women earn an average of $27,000 less than men across all STEM industries – a gap of 18 per cent.

That gap has shrunk from $29,000 in 2020.

Diversity improvements

Minister for Industry and Science Ed Husic said there was still a lot of work to be done to reduce barriers for women joining STEM industries.

“Improving diversity in our STEM and technology sectors is not only the right thing to do but widening the pipeline of talent will also bring incredible benefits for our national wellbeing,” he said.

Earlier this month Husic announced a review into current government programs designed to improve pathways for women and girls in STEM.

Reskilling women and improving diversity was a feature of the Skills Summit with warnings that the IT sector especially needs to find ways of attracting broader groups of people.

Professor Yolande Strengers from Monash University's Department of Human Centred Computing said it was important for learning institutions to build programs that encourage greater diversity among their students.

“Creative programs that build technical skills whilst simultaneously demonstrating how emerging fields like AI need contributions from all disciplines and perspectives to address issues of social responsibility, equality and ethics are a great way to encourage young girls to experience STEM,” she said.

“Initiatives like women’s networks, mentoring programs and tailored support can all improve gender equity outcomes, but the sector also needs to address the role of intersectional privilege in STEM pathways which advantage and accelerate some people’s careers over others.”