Women in STEM in Australia steps up the pace – bipartisan support, Decadal Plan and more …

The launch of the Women in STEM Decadal Plan took place at Australian Parliament House in Canberra in early April, and was followed a few days later with the Pathways to Equity in STEM Symposium in Melbourne. On either side of these events, key commitments to fund SAGE were announced, by the Government and by the Opposition, signalling bipartisan support for SAGE.

With committed bipartisan support, the Decadal Plan and the Symposium … women in STEM in Australia is front and centre and stepping up the pace.

Women in STEM Decadal Plan – what’s next?

At the request of the Australian Government, the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering worked together to develop the Women in STEM Decadal Plan, via wide-ranging consultation with the sector. The purpose was to create a 10-year road map for achieving sustained increases in girls and women’s STEM participation and retention from school through to careers.

The Women in STEM Decadal Plan outlines six opportunities:
• leadership and cohesion
• evaluation
• workplace culture
• visibility
• education
• industry action.

Decadal Plan team

Members of the Women in STEM Decadal Plan Expert Working Group, project team and Unibank representatives celebrating the Pathways to Equity in STEM event.


Turning these opportunities into action requires commitment from all stakeholder groups including government, academia, industry, education sector and the broader community.

So, now the Decadal Plan has been launched, what’s next?

Pathways to Equity in STEM Symposium

The Pathways to Equity in STEM symposium is the first implementation step for the Decadal Plan. Held in Melbourne recently, the symposium brought together leaders across the STEM ecosystem to begin turning the recommendations of the Decadal Plan into actions and to make commitments to equity in STEM in Australia.

The symposium was opened by Chief Executive, Australian Academy of Science, Ms Anna-Maria Arabia who welcomed attendees, talked about Women in STEM and the Decadal Plan and said: “We must be absolutely resolute in bridging the gender equity gap in STEM.”

What was discussed?

Keynote address – Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith

Women in STEM Ambassador, Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith gave the keynote address.

She said her national role was to work with research, SMEs, universities, schools, industry, government, organisations and bodies including SAGE, Male Champions of Change, Science and Technology Australia, the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering to deliver the results that are needed to boost STEM participation in Australia.

“We need a deep focus on actions to address inequity. These must be bold actions, not more of the same and we must evaluate the way we do things.

“We do not need to shoehorn women into a broken system. We need to commit to circuit breakers.

“We need to create workplaces that are respectful, free from discrimination and harassment, free of bias and flexible as well.

Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith talking at the Symposium

Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith speaking at the Symposium.


Collective commitment and ingenuity

“I believe in our collective commitment and ingenuity to address gender equity in STEM in Australia and I pledge to support this process and help to build a stronger Australian STEM workforce,” Professor Harvey-Smith said.

Talking about media organisations and how STEM is portrayed in the media in Australia, she said: “We need to strive for nothing less than gender equity in media organisations and how STEM is portrayed in the media.

“We need a best practice commitment from media to achieve this.”

Why gender equity is important

In Why gender equity is important, speakers from the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering both made important points.

Chair of the Equity and Diversity Reference Group, Australian Academy of Science, Professor Sue O’Reilly said we should promote STEM education from early childhood.

“This needs to be a multilayered effort at all stages of learning and include children and people from all backgrounds.

“And no longer can we tolerate a sector in which sexual harassment is so prevalent as to be considered normal,” said Professor O’Reilly.

STEM workplaces should reflect our population

Vice-President of Diversity, Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, Dr Bruce Godfrey, said STEM workplaces should reflect our population.

“The STEM workforce in Australia currently does not. This has to change.

“Why would we not want to do this in STEM? Why would we not want to include the best and most diverse ideas and people in STEM to achieve the best outcomes?

“Everyone who has a desire to pursue a STEM career should be able to do so,” said Dr Godfrey.

Anna Maria-Arabia, Chief Executive, Australian Academy of Science opening the Symposium

Ms Anna Maria-Arabia, Chief Executive, Australian Academy of Science, opening the Symposium.

Session 1 – Learning from each other

In the session – Learning from each other – some attendees gave snapshots of their own initiatives that contributed to gender equity in their organisations.

From Flinders University in South Australia, Associate Professor Maria Parappilly talked about increasing enrolments in STEM at university through year 9 engagement and outreach programs.

From Swinburne University in Victoria, Professor Virginia Kilborn spoke about the Wattle Women in Leadership program recently initiated across multiple universities and disciplines.

“We are trying to give women the skills and networks for those who are being promoted into leadership roles,” she said.

Good leadership and executive accountability are key

Head of Diversity and Inclusion, BHP, Fiona Vines said good leadership and executive accountability is the key to real culture change for gender equity in STEM.

“BHP has introduced key initiatives for this in four main areas: all roles flex, leveraging our supply chain, unconscious bias and brand and visibility. All roles flex means that all roles in BHP can now be worked flexibly as each person prefers and this includes our mines as well. We now have up to 45 per cent of our workforce working flexibly.

“Leveraging our supply chain includes everything from management consulting firms we use to our gear suppliers.

Mining needs a more inclusive culture

“We need gender balance on teams if you do work for us and we need all our gear and machines we use to be accessible to everyone.

“Addressing unconscious bias is very important and we are working towards a much more inclusive culture, from one that has been extremely male-dominated. Everyone needs to feel welcome.

“Our brand and visibility need to demonstrate gender equity as well so that we attract the right people.

“We need to change the image of mining, because mining is changing and we actually need to attract a totally different type of person than we did years ago,” said Ms Vines.

Session 2 – Measuring impact – do we really know what works?

Session 2 – Measuring impact – do we really know what works? – was chaired by CEO of Australia’s Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, Dr Adi Paterson. The panel for this session comprised Elyse Lane from WGEA; Dr Wafa El-Adhami from SAGE; Somali Cerise from Male Champions of Change; and Lisa Annese from the Diversity Council Australia.

As the Women in STEM Decadal Plan spans 10 years, it is important that there are systems in place to measure the impact that the initiatives and approaches that are being implemented today have into the future.

Dr Paterson said: “Using your own data to prove the business case for diversity enables the focus to be put on creating a more inclusive culture.

More cultural sensitivity and less assumptions

“It is through sharing our successes and our failures that we can accelerate progress for girls and women in STEM.

“It is important we get the statistics and data sorted for gender equity in STEM but there are many, many soft issues too.

“There needs to be more cultural sensitivity in male-dominated workplaces, less assumptions about male roles or males in roles and people allowing full participation by women in all processes and work areas,” said Dr Paterson.

Elyse Lane, Senior Research and Education Advisor, WGEA, said: “Difficulty with collecting data on STEM careers means that we know that there are so many careers that rely on STEM that aren’t ‘classified’ as STEM.

“There is definitely a place for a national evaluation framework.”

Collaboration and genuine commitment

Dr Wafa El-Adhami, Executive Director, SAGE, said: “The Athena SWAN Charter that we use in the SAGE Pilot acknowledges and works with a complex system. We need a harmonised approach to evaluation and development of workforce culture and inclusion metrics.

“We have found in our SAGE cohorts that organisations talk freely and share ideas for gender equity and diversity. They are not in competition.

I’ve been heartened by the level of collaboration and genuine commitment to share and help each other from our members.”

Pathways to Gender Equity Symposium in Melbourne, April 2019

The Session 2 panel: Measuring Impact – do we really know what works? in full swing at the Symposium.


Somali Cerise, Program Director, Male Champions of Change, said: “We are about using data to drive leadership and accountability on gender equity. We call our members to step up beside women to support gender equity; fix the system, not the women; and stand beside your numbers.

“Visibility is important – nothing drives a CEO faster to drive change than them being on a red table at an event, surrounded by green tables of organisations doing better than they are at gender equity in leadership,” she said.

Double jeopardy – women from non-Anglo-Celtic backgrounds

CEO, Diversity Council Australia, Lisa Annese said: “The private sector is now leading government in lots of areas around diversity and inclusion.

“Affirmative action programs that focus on women predominantly benefit white Anglo-Celtic women, and those who focus on other diversity areas tend to predominantly benefit men.

“There is a double-jeopardy if you are a woman from a non-Anglo-Celtic background. Those collecting data must take an intersectional look at the sector … otherwise we’ll be back here again in 10 years.”

Session 3 – Defining first steps: group work and panel

RMIT University’s Professor Madhu Bhaskaran chaired Session 3 in the afternoon – Defining first steps, and said: “The stem ecosystem is ‘messy’ – so many people have several ‘hats’ or organisations they work for – there is a call for everyone to pick and choose the areas where the most impact can be achieved as we try to define the first steps for action.”

For this session, delegates formed groups in key stakeholder areas – education, industry and research – and worked together to outline how their stakeholder area would move forward turning the six opportunities outlined in the Decadal Plan into actions.

Following the group work, Dr Ros Dubs FTSE from the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering chaired a Defining first steps panel made up of: Meg Brighton, ACT Education Directorate – representing the Education discussions; Emma Burrows, The Florey Institute – representing the Research discussions; and Rachel Nicholls, Arup Group – representing the Industry discussions.

Equity needs to be core, students need to be centre

Meg Brighton from ACT Education Directorate, said: “The education tables found the following points: equity needs to be core to education and students need to be at the centre; and we know bias starts before school, so teachers first encounter of teaching students needs to ensure we aren’t building on those pre-school biases.

“There needs to be access of formative data – waiting for NAPLAN is too long. We need to co-design the solution, we need state and federal partnership in this.”

Emma Burrows, Head of Laboratory, The Florey Institute, said: “When hiring at the institute level, try to keep advertising until you can get 50:50 applications.

“We need evaluation systems but the data collection needs to not be prohibitive to small and medium enterprises.

Be aware of absent leadership

“The elephant in the room – or not in the room – is that we know who is here and acknowledge the leaders who are in the discussions, but we are aware of the leadership that is absent.

“We need gender equity to be seen as a serious scientific misconduct by the leadership if it is not happening.”

Rachel Nicholls from Arup Group said: “At the industry tables, discussions focused on changing workplace culture, specifically using the unions to assist. A focus should be to fix your own organisation before going out to others.

Hard for small and medium enterprises

“Small and medium enterprises can find it hard because big business can take the women in the system.

“There needs to be support in lifelong learning for those re-entering the industry, and benefits/incentives for those who adhere to positive policy.

“If you have strong leadership in the workplace then the culture will follow.

“It is also very important for there to be accountability in organisations – ambassadors are not enough,” she said.

More on Pathways to Equity in STEM Symposium

Bipartisan support for SAGE:

Australian Liberal Party:
Advancing Women in STEM

Australian Labor Party:
Australian Women – Labor’s Plan for Equality
Labor’s Plan to Help Close the Gender Pay Gap