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Research shows that if you want more women in STEM, the work culture has to change

According to a new report from the University of South Australia (UniSA).

The South Australian Academy for Gender Equality in STEM (SAAGES) report includes feedback and recommendations from 75 professionals and students involved in the sector at a time when, despite a spike in the number of girls studying STEM at school and university , which then give up career.

The main issues they identified are:

  • An unsupportive or hostile work culture
  • Entrenched, pervasive attitudes – in the workplace, community and within families – that associate STEM careers with men and not women
  • Unconscious biases that perpetuate gender stereotypes in many workplaces, including the misguided belief that women (particularly mothers) have different skills than men
  • Inequitable language in the workplace and media, reinforcing gender stereotypes, including emphasizing “masculine” technical skills over “feminine” soft skills
  • Inflexible work practices
  • Lack of female role models in senior leadership positions.

Dr. Deborah Devis, lead author of the report, says the feedback shows Australia has a long way to go to achieve gender equality in the STEM workforce.

“These obstacles being put up by women working in the industry should be a red flag as they continue to exacerbate the critical workforce shortage in the STEM industry across the country,” she said.

“There are hundreds of ‘women in STEM’ programs across Australia, but the impact of these programs is unclear.

“We have seen significant increases in girls taking STEM subjects in schools and undergraduate degrees, but only a small increase in postgraduate programs and young women pursuing STEM careers. The number of women holding senior management positions in STEM industries is also very low.”

To find solutions to these challenges, the SAGES task force has developed specific recommendations for three STEM groups: future employees, current employees and leaders.

For future STEM workers, they include mentoring, outreach positions, network-building programs (including young entrepreneurs), and student-company relationship building. For current employees: areas of focus in fertility policy, flexibility in the workplace, parental leave with equal pay and evaluation of internal culture.

And leaders should consider inclusive leadership training, rewarding righteous leaders, non-financial leadership incentives for women, and men’s advocacy for women.

Co-author of the report, Dr Florence Gabriel, says diversity is not just an ethical issue or a box to tick.

“According to a recent survey of 1,000 companies around the world, those in the top 25% for gender diversity were found to be 21% more likely to be more profitable and 27% more likely to be more creative,” she said.

“These high-performing companies not only employed more women; they also had a greater gender mix in their senior leadership.”

In Australia, according to the Australian Academy of Science, only 16% of the STEM-trained workforce is female and 90% of women with a STEM qualification work in non-STEM related fields.

The feedback from women who participated in the survey said the industry remains a difficult environment for women to thrive in and that an unsupportive and sometimes hostile work environment is the main reason women have left STEM jobs. Inflexible working hours and a failure to recognize women’s responsibility when it comes to caring for children and elderly parents is another major obstacle.

The report is available here:

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