Australia’s Women in STEM (WiSTEM) programs are “ad hoc”, misdirected, and fail to drive systemic change, a review of WiSTEM initiatives has found, as the government solicits feedback on new draft recommendations designed to move the needle on STEM diversity.

Although they each offer value to participants in their own way, an expert panel examining nine government-backed WiSTEM initiatives – including WiSE, SAGE, Superstars of STEM, WiSA, and others – found that limited interplay between programs, and limited support by industry, had left them as “ad hoc” programs with significant gaps.

Rather than being guided along a pipeline to help them secure roles in STEM industries, the report found, the lack of “scaffolded, whole-of-lifecycle supports” meant the existing approach “places the responsibility for driving change on the shoulders of participants.”

“Connections between initiatives are uncommon, which means efforts to co-ordinate activity across government departments and with industry are ad hoc,” the report notes.

“This can create challenges for initiative participants, who must find and access initiatives relevant to their needs at a point-in-time, rather than being able to access a supported pathway from school into employment.”

Despite “valuable” work underway, the programs did not effectively address ‘intersectionality’ – the additional complexities created for women who are also part of other minorities, such as First Nations, LGBTQI+, neurodiverse and culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) groups.

Many diversity programs are aimed too high in the organisation – likely motivated by the bon mot that organisational change needs executive support – but ignore middle management who, the report notes, “are essential change agents in building inclusive environments necessary to increase diversity in STEM.”

Kicked off last September, the Pathway to Diversity in STEM Review – which is accepting feedback on its 19 draft policy recommendations until 8 September – has evolved from assessing the current situation to developing specific actionable initiatives to address “systemic areas that need to change,” the independent panel noted.

“We acknowledge members of underrepresented cohorts have carried the weight of advocacy,” the panel – comprised of Cicada Innovations CEO Sally-Ann Williams, Indigital CEO and founder Mikaela Jade, and UWA associate professor and director Dr Parwinder Kaur – noted.

“We want to enable more opportunities in STEM and include all people from historically underrepresented backgrounds,” they wrote, calling for “a more nuanced approach to diversity and inclusion in STEM.”

The recommendations include establishment of a central office and independent council “to maintain accountability, oversight and momentum of diversity in STEM initiatives”; creation of a national strategic approach to diversity in STEM initiatives; and commitment to long-term funding – of at least 10 years – for grants, organisations, sponsorship, and support.

Other mooted recommendations include a “formal, long-term and measurable” national advertising campaign promoting STEM careers; engagement with the media and entertainment industry to “more accurately represent the diverse people and roles in STEM”; and inclusion of diverse perspectives in research and publications through “meaningful partnerships with diverse cohorts and community-run organisations”.

Teachers should be engaged and promoted, First Nations scientific knowledge integrated into training courses, and industry and government partnering on “horizon-scanning exercises” to drive development of the STEM workforce.

Struggling to drive systemic change

Australia’s persisting gender diversity problem – a global problem that is reflected in new STEM Equity Monitor figures showing engagement of women with STEM school and university subjects has only inched upwards over the past seven years – has left many women disillusioned and government advocates scrambling for solutions.

“We know there is a huge amount of work to be done to boost diversity in the STEM fields,” Minister for Industry and Science Ed Husic said, calling for the expert independent panel to “tell us the uncomfortable truths and suggest possible ways to address this issue.”

“There is great capacity for economic growth in the STEM sector, and the panel’s report will feature potential opportunities for reform to help ensure a diverse and inclusive range of people enter STEM careers.”

Yet even the nomenclature ‘STEM careers’ is problematic, the report warns, noting that existing initiatives “generally treat STEM as a collective, without targeting the specific problems associated with each of the disciplines.”

It is still “premature” to gauge the direct impact of the initiatives at this early stage, it adds, noting that “many are generational change initiatives and it will take time for their impacts to be observable at the aggregate level.”

“There are positive signs of impact for participants, but it is clear sustainable cultural change will take further time and support.”