More women studying STEM but workplace barriers remain

Although we are doing a better job at attracting women to some university STEM courses, very few women are still going for vocational STEM education. And there’s far too little attention paid to actually keeping STEM-qualified women in the workforce.

A five-year study of STEM graduates from the year 2011 found that by 2016, only 1 in 10 STEM-qualified women worked in a STEM industry, compared with more than 1 in 5 STEM-qualified men. Data on other gender identities were not collected.

The huge difference in retention rates should come as no surprise when we consider the gendered roles our society enforces, and the vastly different experiences people face, both in workplaces and in society at large.

It is important to acknowledge the major gaps in these data, for example on other gender identities, sexual orientation, socioeconomic factors, disability, and race. Broadening the data captured will enable us to better understand the full impact of the many intersecting barriers to participation that people face.

We need structural workplace changes

Businesses suffering chronic skills shortages can’t keep focusing on programs designed to grow the pipeline, in the hope that the system will fix itself. We need structural workplace changes.

One avenue is to introduce more flexible work options and broaden access to paid parental leave. According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, gender-equal primary carer’s leave was offered by 3 in 5 employers in 2020-21.

Thanks to a concerted effort by many employers, 12 per cent of this leave was taken by men last year, almost twice as much as the year before. This figure was even higher (20 per cent) in management roles.

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Bias, discrimination, and sexual harassment are major factors that drive people from workplaces. Solving these issues receives too little funding and attention.

Workplace sexual harassment costs Australia A$3.5 billion per year and inflicts a terrible personal toll on those affected. Women are more likely to be sexually harassed than men, and people from racial minorities, people with disabilities and LGBTQIA+ individuals suffer disproportionately.

According to the [email protected]: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report, sexual harassment is more prevalent in male-dominated industries. The Australian government recently committed to implementing all 55 recommendations of that report – a significant, positive step.

Businesses must urgently put robust systems in place to prevent discrimination, bias, and sexual harassment. There are many excellent tools available to guide this work, for example these provided by the Australian Human Rights Commission, Chief Executive Women, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, Our Watch, and the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering.