Australia’s chief scientist Cathy Foley has highlighted that an important part of solving the country’s skills shortage in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) sectors is embracing a diverse workforce.
In delivering the 2021 Institute of Public Administration Australia ACT Helen Williams Oration, Foley concerningly drew attention to how women still only made up 9% of tertiary students studying for STEM-related qualifications. She believes one solution to this would be to improve the visibility of science careers.
“Students, teachers, and parents need to be able to see the end goal — and know what it looks like to have a job in STEM,” she said on Wednesday.
“Role models are also incredibly important. I am constantly hearing from scientists and researchers about the people who influenced them [when] they were younger. I know I wouldn’t have ended up in science research without role models and encouragement from inspiring teachers and lecturers.”
She also acknowledged that women who end up in the STEM fields consistently face similar challenges. These include lack of support for flexible and part-time work, and non-linear career paths; unhelpful alignment between the timing of university careers and the age when women have children; and the way success is measured using an “out-moded system” of publication numbers and the like.
At the same time, Foley said the barriers do not get any easier for women in STEM as they get older, pointing out age discrimination and menopause as two examples.
Her suggestion to diversify the workforce was to take a “science plus” approach.
“Solutions to the challenges we face need science plus engineering, science plus design, a business case, the right regulation and social licence,” Foley said.
“Bringing together all of these pieces of the puzzle is the way to achieve real-world impact. This is about different disciplines but it’s also about different ways of thinking. We need engineers, experts in business, marketing and communications experts, ethicists, and people with the capacity to think in nuanced ways about safety and community acceptance.”
Foley acknowledged that the launch of the STEM returners program last year was a step in the right direction.
“This is about encouraging highly skilled people with STEM backgrounds back into the workforce after a career break, and linking them with jobs, as well as mentoring through Engineers Australia,” she explained.
“It starts with 12 weeks, then if the fit is right, the jobs can become permanent. This looks like an excellent program for both sides of the equation — providing a pathway back into the workforce for skilled workers, and a talent pool for industry sectors facing skills shortages.”
The progress might be slow, but the focus and effort is undeniable.
Developed by the Office of Women in STEM Ambassador, the guide is aimed at helping those running STEM programs know if the initiatives are working or not.
Australia’s chief scientist said there has been progress, but the rate of progress is ‘very, very small’.
Of the 337 initiatives offered in Australia, only seven provide some publicly available evidence to demonstrate their impact or effectiveness.