A new government report puts gender diversity in STEM professions front and centre, but it will take extra care to make sure the ‘E’ in STEM is highly represented going forward.
The Women in STEM Decadal Plan, released this month, calls on all science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) organisations to make public commitments to promoting gender diversity over the next 10 years.
The report found that Australia has yet to make the systemic changes required to achieve gender equity in STEM professions, something that would open up new talent pools at a time when STEM skilled jobs are growing at a rate 1.5 times faster than any other job sector.
Justine Romanis, National Manager, Professional Diversity and STEM at Engineers Australia, said the engineering profession is acutely aware of this issue.
Engineering has the lowest numbers of women compared to other STEM professions – just 13 per cent.
“There tends to be a focus on the sciences and not so much engineering, yet engineering is the worst [gender diverse] profession among the STEM professions,” Romanis said.
“Engineering is the problem-solving arm. We need to ensure the ‘E’ in STEM is highly represented in all of these strategic documents.”
Pulling back the curtain
The decadal plan is built around three pillars of ‘attract, retain, progress’. Romanis said a key focus for EA is attracting more young women into engineering. This is because the definition of ‘engineering’ is still shrouded in mystery when it comes to public understanding of the profession.
“There’s a lack of understanding in schools – the earliest intervention – about what it is that engineers do,” Romanis said.
“Young girls want to make the world a better place, they want to save humanity, they want to fix the world’s problems … we’re not getting the communication cut-through to inform students that engineers solve these problems.”
She added that Engineers Australia is looking at how to market engineering to future generations in a way that demonstrates anything is possible.
“Engineering today is very different to that of 20 years ago, and will continue to evolve over the coming decades. The pace and change that we are seeing means we don’t know what some roles of the next decade will look like,” she said.
“We need to change our approach. Rather than talk about individual engineering disciplines, we need to ask, ‘What’s the problem you want to solve?’ And then educate about how engineering can help solve that problem.”
Answering the call
The decadal plan lists six ‘opportunities’ that STEM organisations can turn into action plans for achieving better gender balance. They are: leadership and cohesion; evaluation; workplace culture; visibility; education; and industry action.
While all six are stepping stones, Romanis said it’s important to concentrate resources on those that will have the most impact on the engineering profession.
For example, role models are crucial to getting more women in engineering and increasing the profession’s visibility. To that end, Engineers Australia will soon roll out a pilot program aimed at connecting primary school- and high school-aged girls with engineering role models who can put a face to the work.
The Australian Academy of Science will also be launching a national database for women in STEM, and Romanis said it’s important for the engineering community to be well represented on that list.
“That’s a call to action for our members – put yourself forward, or nominate the women in your organisation,” she said.
“The golden question”
Implementing a plan is one thing – measuring its success is another.
“That’s the golden question,” Romanis said.
“We’re investing millions of dollars and thousands of hours and everybody’s heart is in the right place, but how do we measure which programs are really creating change?”
The decadal plan sets goals of more women in leadership positions, greater flexibility for men and women, better reporting structures for how organisations are addressing bias and discrimination, and more women in STEM role models for future generations.
There are, however, no KPIs or targets attached to those. Instead, the decadal plan includes holding organisations accountable to these goals by asking for public commitments. STEM organisations, industry bodies and universities are asked to provide written responses to the decadal plan, with outlines of how they will achieve the above goals.
For its part, Romanis said Engineers Australia will start by mapping the decadal plan against its own five-year STEM strategy, which is focused on building a more robust talent pipeline.
This would also be an opportunity to move the dial and determine what success looks like for the engineering profession. In 10 years’ time, Romanis said she would like to see an engineering workforce that is diverse not only in gender but also in intersectional diversity. She would also like to see the brand of engineering change.
“There’s such a breadth of engineers, and we’d like to see it become more of a mainstream conversation about what engineers do and more understanding about the value they contribute to society,” she said.
“We can’t change the system tomorrow … But I think that’s part of the decadal plan: to make sure everyone is working towards the same goal and setting in place actionable items.”
May I point out that the Women in STEM Decadal Plan is not a Government report. It was produced jointly by the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, both of which are independent, highly reputable organisations. I was a member of the Plan’s Expert Working Group as were a number of other EA members.
Mark Toner FIEAust CPEng EngExec