Women comprise just 14 per cent of the Australian engineering workforce. Engineers Australia CEO Romilly Madew AO FTSE HonFIEAust EngExec discussed what needs to happen to close the gender gap in engineering and STEM, particularly in leadership, at the G20 EMPOWER Summit and the G20 Ministerial Conference on Women’s Empowerment in Gandhinagar, India, this week.
Madew represented Australia as the private sector representative alongside Government representative Rochelle White from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Landing more women in top positions is a shared objective among many organisations, but this goal won’t be achieved if a number of hurdles aren’t addressed.
Madew discussed ways to overcome these hurdles at the G20 Alliance for the Empowerment and Progression of Women’s Economic Representation (G20 EMPOWER) in India this week.
“We have a particular challenge in Australia around enabling women to balance career and family responsibilities,” Madew said. “Improving access to paid parental leave and paid childcare, and ensuring gender pay equity are essential to stop women from dropping out of the workforce before they reach leadership or board positions.
“It is imperative that we accelerate women’s leadership and empowerment opportunities. As Chief Executive of Engineers Australia, creating these kinds of opportunities across the engineering profession is something I am really passionate about – because women make up just 14 per cent of the Australian engineering workforce.”
Across the summit and conference, the message was the same: women are under-represented in STEM globally. Common themes from the many countries participating included getting the basics right, what gets measured gets done, reaching the furthest behind first and going beyond the workplace.
For Madew, meeting with and hearing insights from so many remarkable women at G20 EMPOWER was an inspiring experience and one of learning and sharing.
Bias, discrimination and imposter syndrome
During the summit, Madew shared some thought-provoking insights on tackling barriers to female participation and how Engineers Australia is leading the charge to close the gender gap in engineering.
Gender-based bias and discrimination in the workplace remain a significant, and often unseen, challenge for women in the workplace, Madew explained.
Nearly one in five female engineers said there is bullying or exclusion of women in the workplace, according to an Engineers Australia survey which looked at the experiences of more than 500 women in engineering.
About two in three of the surveyed women who left the engineering profession did so because they felt that their opportunities for career progressions were limited, and/or they experienced gender discrimination, bullying or sexual harassment.
Bias and discrimination in the workplace can have other worrying flow-on effects – one of which is imposter syndrome.
“Women who are excluded from teams, project and career progression opportunities due to gender discrimination may feel that it reflects on their own abilities,” Madew said.
Engineers Australia’s Women in Engineering report found that 56 per cent of women engineers said they feel like an imposter at work, doubting their own skills, abilities and/or accomplishments – compared to just 34 per cent of men and 38 per cent of women in other fields.
Madew added that internalised messaging and experiences from an early age can cast doubt on women and girls’ abilities in STEM.
“This leads to ongoing doubt about whether they truly belong in the engineering profession – so we really need to be doing much more to break the bias.”
Growing your career with mentors
The role of mentors in creating opportunities for women to enter leadership positions cannot be underestimated.
Madew said having access to strong female mentors when she was balancing parenthood with her career was essential.
“Following the birth of our third child, who was quite sick when he was a one-year-old, I made the decision to work part-time for the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA),” she said.
“By the end of that year, when my son was two, I was offered the role of acting CEO of the GBCA.”
Madew became CEO of GBCA six months later, and stayed at the organisation for 13 years.
“My unseen barrier was that I thought I would be forgotten about by working from home. I was living in rural NSW at the time and this was before LinkedIn existed, so the only way for me to connect with others was via face-to-face networking. I made sure to attend industry and other events to stay connected and build my network.
“I was working in the property sector at the time, which in Australia has been one of the more progressive sectors in terms of tackling issues around gender equality. I was fortunate to have a wonderful mentor to help me navigate that in my own way.
“For me this meant normalising flexible work, developing my own, inclusive leadership style and playing to my strengths in areas such as change management, relationship building and collaboration.”
By the same token, limited access to mentoring opportunities can hold women back from progressing into leadership roles.
The Engineers Australia survey sought to understand how the organisation could attract and retain more women in the profession.
A third of those surveyed identified the lack of mentors available for women as a key barrier to progressing in engineering.
“Access to women in senior leadership roles can really empower women to progress their careers and help to navigate the challenges faced in the workplace – which can occur at any point in your career,” Madew said.
Support for women re-entering the workforce
Providing flexible work arrangements and opportunities for women to re-enter the workforce is also key to shifting the gender balance in leadership.
Engineers Australia has partnered with STEM Returners, an organisation focused on encouraging women back into STEM roles after they’ve taken extended career breaks.
“The program allows employers to attract candidates from a new talent pool, and give candidates a supported route back to their career,” Madew said. “It provides employers with talented professionals and helps them to view CV gaps in a different way.
“Alongside the experience gained from a work placement, the STEM Returners project will also provide support for the candidate in advice, career coaching, networking opportunities and mentoring. All of the candidates going through the program will also have the opportunity to restart their career in a permanent position at the end of the program.”
Access to paid parental leave, childcare and equal pay
Australia has ranked number one in the world for levels of educational attainment for women since the World Economic Forum published its first Global Gender Gap Index Australia in 2006.
However, Australia is placed 70th in the world for economic participation.
“That’s because we haven’t had policies in place to ensure that mothers and fathers are able to equitably and sustainably combine work and care,” Madew said.
“The degree to which you can access things like paid parental leave and paid childcare are obviously enormous barriers for women’s economic participation.
“In Australia, we have seen significant progress in the past 12 months on this, with the Government increasing access to paid parental leave as well as subsidies for childcare.”
Madew also noted that connectivity and access to services can be particularly challenging for those living outside major population centres.
“Policies enabling women to return to the workforce are key, but we also need to ensure adequate access to childcare placements to meet the demands of a growing population, and that social and transport infrastructure are well-planned and integrated so people can access these services.”
Data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency also indicates that the gender pay gap remains a major issue.
Australia’s total remuneration gender pay gap is 22.8 per cent. For every $1 on average that a man makes, women earn 77.2 cents. Over the course of a year, that difference adds up to $25,596.
Male allyship to empower women
Madew has been a long-standing supporter of the Male Champions of Change strategy, which was established in 2010 in response to the lack of women in leadership in Australia and the slow pace of change on gender equality.
“In 2020, the group changed its name to Champions of Change Coalition to reflect that men and women were standing side-by-side in support of gender equality,” said Madew.
“The strategy engages members as champions not because they are perfect, but because they publicly commit to leading practical, constructive and disruptive actions to accelerate change,” said Madew.
In 2016, the Champions of Change STEM Group was established, of which Madew is a member.
“The Champions of Change STEM Group exists to achieve a significant and sustainable increase in the representation of women in leadership positions in STEM, recognising that unless we disrupt the status quo in the sector, our nations will not fulfil their full innovation and growth potential.”