Women in STEM – the ongoing issue

Recently, I wrote a post which highlighted the gender gap that still exists in regard to female representation in STEM related fields and proposed the multi-pronged approach that was needed to ensure that this gap is narrowed over the coming years. After all, we can’t continue to ignore half the population when looking for great talent and the innovation required to drive a healthy economy.

This week the NSW Government released the first of a series of reports outlining current statistics on this matter entitled “Women in NSW Education and Learning Report 2016“.

The findings of this report outline the current state of female representation in STEM related fields in NSW and the actions being taken by the NSW Government to narrow this divide. Although the statistics are still worrying, there appears to be a sliver of hope in terms of the actions being taken and the outcomes being aspired to.

What the report highlights is that there is still a considerable gap in the number of girls and boys who choose STEM related subjects for the HSC. According to 2015 HSC enrolments, there is a 14.2% gender gap in favour of boys, with the greatest gap being in the technology and applied science enrolments.

According to the report, in 2014, women accounted for the majority of course completion in 2 out of the 6 STEM-related undergraduate fields – Health and Natural and Physical Sciences. The greatest gap in undergraduate completion for women remains in the fields of Engineering and IT (with less than 20% completion rate by women in both cases). Even with the efforts that exist to get more girls into these fields, the flow on effect is still not being realised.

The one positive piece of news from this report comes in the area of post graduate study, where for the first time, women outperformed men in terms of completion rates (32.9% of women versus 30.7% of men) and dominate 3 out of the 5 STEM related postgraduate fields – Health, Natural and Physical Science and Agriculture, Environment and related studies. As expected, Engineering and IT performed the weakest when considered in terms of gender balance.

The good news is that NSW Government has earmarked and extra $12m to restore and increase student uptake in STEM related fields with a particular focus on girls including a Summer School for high performing students.

This additional investment, if realised, is a good start. However, what is still required is a holistic approach to decrease this gender gap which must involve parents, teachers and potential employers working together to achieve the results that will benefit not only individuals but provide a viable pipeline of women into female-poor industries.

As reported in the SMH on 4th October, a common thread among five female PhD students was having a parent or teacher who encouraged them into the field: “I had a very supportive family, who encouraged me to go do whatever I want. However, I do realise that a lot of girls with my cultural background at least, are discouraged from following these sort of careers. There was quite a gender difference in high school because it was not perceived as cool for girls to study chemistry and physics.” Nabiha Elias, 25, postgraduate student.

Unless this mindset can be shifted through encouragement and positive role modelling, no amount of additional investment will make the difference that we should be aspiring to. This is not an easy issue to solve but we all have to be on the same page to make the sustainable change.

Optimiss Consulting – building better business outcomes through greater gender balance.