Women in STEM: What Australia's tertiary educators are doing to achieve gender parity

The progress might be slow, but the focus and effort is undeniable.

Australia's skills gap problem could potentially cost the economy AU$10 billion in growth over the next four years.

According to a recent report by RMIT and Deloitte Access Economics, Australia will need 156,000 more digital technology workers by 2025, which is roughly one in four jobs created during that period.

A large contributing factor to that problem is there just aren't generally enough people enrolling into science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) subjects. A more concerning issue within that is there are even fewer women than men.

At the end of last year, Australia's Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel revealed the country's STEM workforce graduate figure for females was around 29% in 2016 and 27% five years earlier. He said, while it was a "move in the right direction", there was still a long way to go before the country would reach gender parity.

"It's influenced enormously by home and parents. The decision for a young woman is influenced enormously by peer pressure, teachers, and role models, and there is a lot of effort … to try to redress it, but it takes time," he said, while fronting a Senate Committee.

"There has been progress, but the rate of progress is very, very small."

This lack of improvement in numbers was confirmed by a study undertaken by a researcher at the Australian National University (ANU). The research revealed that while there are large numbers of initiatives in Australia aimed at increasing female participation in STEM, there is still little evidence of how effective these programs are.

Despite this, tertiary educators remain undeterred from trying, and are placing greater focus and effort than ever before to improve the gender parity in STEM subjects offered by their respective institutions.

See also: Engineering careers are hot. Here's how women can catapult into the male-dominated field. (TechRepublic)

Melbourne's Monash University boasts it has the highest numbers of female IT students in Australia, with around 30% constituting in its coursework degrees, and 39% making up graduate research. But it acknowledges more could be done and continues to make a concerted effort to show female students, such as those still in high school through outreach programs, that "IT isn't just a geeky masculine stereotype, which it has been for so long, and that it's for everyone".

"We'd love to achieve more of an equilibrium with the large number of men that we currently have," Yolande Strengers, associate professor of digital technology and society and associate dean of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) at Monash University, told ZDNet.

"It's a long road dependant on many, many things. One of the things that really creates challenges for all departments of IT is that there just isn't the numbers of women interested in enrolling into these kinds of subjects. That's why we have to make our courses appealing and attractive."

The university also hosts an alumni mentoring program within the STEM faculties that link up current female and non-binary students with those who previously studied at Monash and have gone on to have careers in IT. Last year alone, the university saw 65 mentors and mentees participate, which according to Strengers, was the "largest cohort ever" even when the program had to shift online due to the pandemic.

Monash further cemented its EDI strategy with the release of its inaugural annual report [PDF] that not only outlines what the university has done to date to address issues around EDI, but also what's planned for the next year. Strengers is optimistic it will also serve as a conversation starter with other universities. 

"It's a way of demonstrating what we're doing, what we plan to do, and opening up those conversations with other universities," she said.

The University of Wollongong (UOW) has also recognised the necessity to address the gender parity issue at tertiary level in STEM. For the last five years, the university has been running what it refers to as a "capstone project" for students studying computer science and IT. Under this project, students are matched with industry partners to help solve real-world problems.

"In that subject close to 20% of our students are female, and it hasn't really changed for the past five or so years. That's an interesting indicator because doing that subject means the students are pretty close to graduation, and so that gives us an indicator of how many are entering into the workforce," said Mark Freeman, UOW School of Computing and Information Technology senior lecturer and associate dean of EDI.

Freeman warned the lack of diversity increases potential outcome risks as future technologies are being developed.

"If we don't have solutions that involve participation from members across a broad spectrum with clear inclusions of all genders and different diversity group, then the solutions won't meet the needs of society," he said.

"We've identified through the past that IT and computer science has been a male-dominated industry, and we've only looked at problems in one particular way, but with diversity and greater participation then we'll be able to see a lot more positive systems in place. Tools and technologies will no longer be just from a homogenous, male perspective."

Read also: AI and ethics: The debate that needs to be had

Like Monash, the regional university has been actively engaged with school students in something it calls the In2Uni program.

"It's about realising that there are some disciplinary areas, in particular, in STEM and ones that have a heavy reliance on mathematics, it's a little bit late to target year 11 and 12 students because they've already made up their minds … so these programs go all the way back to year one students, and they build up complexity in different subjects and go all the way to year 12," Freeman explained.

Masterclasses are also offered to senior high school students during school holidays days. "They get a credit equivalent to one subject when they enter university … we usually get just over 20% female participation in these masterclasses. It gives them exposure and the idea to start thinking about IT and computer science is something they could be interested it," Freeman said.

Over at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), associate dean of equity and diversity in engineer Lucy Marshall explained that enrollment by female engineering students has grown substantially in the last five years. Currently, females comprise where of 28% of total student population in engineering, compared to five years ago when it was only 19%.

Despite the positive uptick, only 13% of female engineering students are graduating, Marshall said.

She attributed something known as negative attrition could be to blame, and one area that the UNSW has specifically been attempting to address through creating inclusive classrooms and introducing activities to make students feel professionally and socially supported.

"Positive attrition is people who start studying engineering but because of their own personal goals or what they discover through the degree, they realise it's not the best profession for them … and so they discontinue the degree. For those reasons, that's a good thing; it's not that they found something that was lacking within the degree or they weren't connected. It was more they had a difference in what they desire in their career," she said.

"What we focus on is what we can do around those negative attrition rates. Often, we feel that happens because students don't feel connected to their academic or social systems, so we're doing a lot of work around student perception of belonging, how much support they have – both socially within their university and also academically.

"Are they getting support for all of their academic goals, as well as can they find their peer group and the people they can connect to and will support them through the degree."

In addition to university-run initiatives, Marshall highlighted that female engineering students have also taken it upon themselves to develop a "grassroots initiative" to support their peers through the Women in Engineering Society, or WieSoc for short.

"It's run by students, the students manage their own program, select their own president and committee, and they're just really active. They have nearly 3,000 members … which is a huge membership because students don't automatically get put into society; they have to sign-up. The work they do to try and support all the female engineering students is really outstanding.

"They have something called the protege program where they partner senior students and industry partners with students who are coming into engineering to provide them mentoring, and to help them think about what their professional goal might be.

"They also had a program called develop me where they ran workshops around professional skills people might need."

Marshall cautioned that without such diversity gender initiatives in place "we could end up with engineering solutions that don't properly capture what all the proper consequences will be".

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