Breaking down barriers for women in STEM

Breaking down barriers for women in STEM

The world of work was undergoing profound changes even before the onset of COVID-19, with technology playing an increasing role in everything that we do.

This trend has now accelerated, with the pandemic requiring us to become more proficient in a wide variety of digital platforms. But it has also highlighted the key role that a STEM education has to play in equipping us with the skills needed to steer us through this brave new world we find ourselves in.

In Australia, we are competitive in knowledge-based industries, and technology developed on our shores has been powering solutions to some of the world’s most complex problems. Companies like Equiem, Canva and Atlassian and their suite of products are capturing the imagination of individuals and businesses around the globe.

These are the industries of the future, and to gain a foothold in them, young people need to develop STEM skills. The Foundation for Young Australians’ New Work Smarts Report found that an average worker will spend 77 percent more time using science and maths.

I am not making a case here for one particular type of education to take precedence over others. We certainly need a myriad of skill sets to build the community that we want.

However, it is alarming that women are underrepresented in STEM, currently making up less than 20 percent of STEM occupations given the talent gap currently and looming within the sector.

This underrepresentation originates from fewer girls pursuing STEM subjects at school and university. This is often due to the prevalence of gender stereotypes, with girls discouraged from pursuing careers in occupations such as engineering and information technology, with one girl once saying to me “it is hard to be what you cannot see”.

According to PwC, during high school males outnumber females studying STEM subjects, with 83% male and 64% female participation. This gap widens as they enter university, with 52% male and 30% female. Finally, a poignant figure which is disappointingly representative of the status quo, is the decline to only 3% of women who now say their first-choice career is in technology, as opposed to 15% for males.

In discussing the dilemma of attracting younger talent to the sector, especially young females Greg Attwells the Co-Founder of Creatable says:

“STEM has become somewhat of an unhelpful acronym because it emphasises the process we use, not the outcome we want. Technology isn’t the point, it’s just a tool we use to solve problems and create. Creativity is the point and problem solving is the real skill we want to develop. Science, technology, engineering and maths are just different ways we can approach problem solving, using different tools. Passion comes from the problem we are trying to solve, not the tool we’re using to solve it. The best kind of STEM learning happens in context. Creativity first, with technology in pursuit”.

We need to redesign our teaching to incorporate these principles to promote creativity and breakdown the entrenched stereotypes and thinking around what a career in STEM is and get girls excited about their future in a stimulating and dynamic field that is inclusive for everyone.

My message to girls at school thinking of the career they want is that there isn’t an occupation or an industry that is closed off from you. You just have to be passionate and have a willingness to learn, and a love for creativity and problem solving.

If you are interested in science, if you are fascinated by technology and its potential to transform the way we live, then you should dive in and choose the subjects that will take you where you want to go. Your imagination is your only limitation.

A STEM education will not only equip you to navigate the challenges of the future, but to be a leader in finding solutions to them; and solve problems in a way that we didn’t even know that we could.

Emma Hendry


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