ADVICE: How to change the gender diversity ratios in STEM

While progress is being made in some areas, there is still a dire lack of diversity in STEM fields overall. Women still only hold about one in four STEM jobs, and many in the industry end up leaving due to hostility in the workplace.

We asked four highly accomplished women in STEM what can be done to drive change on this important issue.

  • In your view, what is the biggest thing driving the local and global shortage of women working in tech and data? What is the low-hanging fruit for each of governments, corporates, and individuals to improve the ratio?

Jamie K Leach, CEO, Open Data Australia:

The topic of diversity and equity in technology is a complex subject that requires many initiatives at multiple levels to address the disproportion.

  • Improve Education – A change in education from the earliest of ages to break down stereotypes and to bolster the number of girls studying science and technology from primary school, through to secondary school and onto tertiary education. Formal education, paired with exposure to real-world professionals through mentoring and work experience opportunities.
  • Champion Role Models – Champion role models need to be visible and accessible as both women in tech, and the male champions that support and promote equality and diversity in the tech industry.
  • Challenge Negative Stereotypes – Negative stereotypes exist from the earliest of years, with segregation in toys, entertainment and through the direction of play-based learning during infancy and early childhood education. Also, the perceived requirement for women to form women-only networking groups and forums and to separate the genders is continuing to exacerbate the gap. While support from other women can be nurturing and beneficial, it does not assist in breaking down stereotypes. It does not help in correcting the exposure to hiring executives and reducing the barriers that exist through network theory and segregation to decision-makers.
  • Create and Foster Networking and Mentoring Opportunities – networking and mentoring opportunities need to consider the following in their creation:
    • Exposure to decision-makers – executives and recruiters
    • Visibility to successful and passionate females in tech
    • The opportunity to showcase up-and-coming talent
    • A safe environment for females and students to ask open and honest questions without fearing judgement or retribution
    • The ability to celebrate appointments and promotions publicly to perpetuate success stories
    • Continuing education and development at the highest levels

  • What can today’s STEM leaders be doing to empower women and those of diverse backgrounds in their careers?

Dr Bianca Capra, Senior Aerospace Engineering Lecturer, UNSW:

There are many things our STEM leaders of today can do empower women and those from diverse backgrounds. Some are small, and some are large but all have positive impact. My advice would be to be mindful of your own unconscious bias and to openly and honestly listen to the challenges, experiences and opinions of minorities in your areas. We can all learn a lot by listening to others and reflecting on what we hear, and how we can each collectively act to improve and advocate for systematic structural changes so that diversity and inclusivity are core to our businesses.

Some immediate practical advice would be to mentor, promote and advocate for those in all minority groups that work for you – look for the differences people bring, value these differences, and help them develop and find their voice and passion.

Take the manel pledge! As a female aerospace engineer that was never taught by a female at university level, and regularly attends conferences where all keynote speakers, and most session chairs are male I say enough is enough! Women have always, and continue to, contribute to engineering and STEM more broadly. Be bold as STEM leaders and wear your values, don’t agree to sit on panels that don’t include true diversity and be open and honest about your choices. Without this visible and vocal support of our STEM leaders we will not be able to enact effective change. 

Understand that the system we are working in was designed primarily for one demographic only and that as a result the structures and mechanisms supporting this system are inherently biased. By recognising and accepting this, our leaders can then make effective change to promote greater diversity, such as introducing flexible working for all, supporting staff who are returning from long career breaks, looking for and valuing the knowledge and experience that diverse teams bring, and redefining the metrics we use to measure success so that it is reflective of all.

Give women and others from diverse backgrounds the tools to succeed – showcase, highlight and value the ideas and thinking they bring to teams. Importantly, empowering women and those from other underrepresented groups requires showing your current staff the important role we all have in creating a more inclusive and equitable work environment.

I would like to add that leaders and influences come in many forms. Parents, teachers and peers all have a key role in shaping the identity and self believe of the young people around them, so in my opinion these are also today’s STEM leaders. Listen to the passions of the young around you, use inclusive language, encourage and support their interest in STEM, and never say ‘never’ or ‘yes but …’.

  • Why do you think there is a lack of diversity in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, maths) fields? What can practitioners, organisations, and communities do to overcome these barriers? 

Dr Kudzai Kanhutu, infectious diseases physician, telehealth Clinical lead and Deputy Medical Information Officer at the Royal Melbourne Hospital:

It boils down to meaningful opportunities and informed choice. Where there are historical power imbalances it can be very difficult to shift the balance and provide everyone with equal opportunities.  If I had my time again I may well have chosen to study Engineering and not Medicine. However, I wasn’t in a position to pursue that option because I didn’t really understand at the time the incredible opportunities that might be available if I chose engineering, physics or pure maths.

We need to get better at communicating what is available to people and how it can apply in their contexts, finding creative personalised ways to teach and foster STEAM curiosity.  Often the best people to come up with creative solutions to problems are those most affected by it.

  • In your view, what is the biggest thing driving the local and global shortage of women working in tech and data? What is the low-hanging fruit for each of governments, corporates, and individuals to improve the ratio?

Courtney Blackman, CMO, YBF Ventures:

There are so many layered factors that have pervaded modern culture for millennia including hiring practices to media portrayal of women as to what constitutes a “male” job and what constitutes a “female” job. Historically, tech has been framed as a “male” job. From a media perspective and more recently in regard to popular television shows focused on the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) world – The Big Bang Theory and Silicon Valley, which concluded their final seasons last year, were both hotbeds of same-old tropes with men taking centre stage and women being the support characters. It was only in later episodes of The Big Bang Theory that female scientists were introduced as characters, where previously, it was four male “geniuses” and a blonde woman who was both a waitress and struggling actress. I’ll put my hand up and say I’m as guilty as anyone for watching shows like these and I’m fully aware of the gender biases slipping stealthily into my own brain. Unfortunately, these biases will permeate through to the next generations as they will forever live on through re-runs (both on television and the way people think).

When hiring, everyone from the founder of a tech startup to HR departments in larger companies already have biases in place, and more often than not, the pool of potential tech employees is an omnipresent visual of masculinity. Females, regrettably, are more reticent to put themselves up for tech roles as the roles are deemed and enforced as “not for them”.

With that said, there are so many inspiring women working in tech, but sadly the turnover is twice as high for senior women working in tech than men. And three times more males found startups in Australia than females, according to Startup Muster’s 2018 annual report.

Education targeting young women in STEM will certainly help with a future inclusive workforce, but today, programs need to be put into place to retain female tech leadership, which would in turn have a positive impact on recruitment and retention for junior tech roles.

I’m the CMO (and sit on the Executive Leadership Team) of tech and innovation hub, YBF – which has offices in Melbourne and Sydney. The company upgraded its leadership at the end of 2017 and one of the key pillars of the new leadership was to take an active approach to gender equality. When I joined the team at the end of 2017 there was one female on the team. With the hiring of me, that number was inched up to two, but our new CEO wanted to see parity. Over the next six to twelve months we worked together as a team on recruitment and by mid-2018, we reached gender parity. We have fluctuated a few times where we’ve actually had more females on the team then male, but normally the average is 50-50. This has been an incredible achievement – to shift the entire culture of Australia’s most renowned tech and innovation hub from being primarily male to being gender inclusive. In 2018 when we did reach parity for the first time, one of the men on the team was actually moved to tears as it was never a priority for the company previously and he realised how important it was.

Part of my specific role in shifting our company’s culture was developing and directing the Lift Off Awards. The awards take place annually in Melbourne and they celebrate gender and cultural diversity in fintech. To date, the awards have gained endorsement from incredible female leaders including Melbourne’s Lord Mayor, Sally Capp, Australia’s first Fintech Minister, Senator Jane Hume and the Chief Executive Partner of Lander & Rogers, Genevieve Collins.