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Australia needs to address ‘significant gender disparity’ in STEM

Angela, a 2023 graduate of Aviation Australia’s Female Aircraft Maintenance Engineer (FAME) program. (Image: Aviation Australia)

A landmark government report has shown “significant gender disparity and job insecurity” in STEM, with women far more likely to be in insecure part-time and contract work.

The STEM Career Pathways report has found women are more likely to be on fixed-term contracts than men, and less likely to be in full-time work: only 58 per cent of women surveyed were on permanent full-time contracts, compared to 78 per cent of men.

The report, prepared by Science & Technology Australia for the National Science and Technology Council, urges the Government to increase female participation and bolster job security across STEM fields.

Engineers Australia CEO Romilly Madew AO says engineering in particular is a problem area for gender equity, with only 14 per cent of working engineers being women, as well as 19 per cent of engineering graduates.

“This is at a time where there is huge demand for engineers in the labour market. Addressing the lack of diversity in STEM occupations is critical to lessening current and future skills shortages,” she said.

“The decline in uptake of maths and science subjects in school, and declining commencements in engineering studies in the past decade, are concerning signs for Australia’s engineering workforce pipeline.

“We need to elevate the ‘e’ in STEM, because engineering has a unique place in the national agenda. It is critical that the panel’s recommended advisory council includes an engineering perspective and that strategies are tailored to meet the unique challenges across all STEM fields, moving away from a generic, one-size-fits-all STEM approach.”

Among the report’s key findings, job insecurity was determined to be a barrier to remaining in STEM careers, particularly in research, and damages workplace culture and job satisfaction. The report says changes are needed to help people move between sectors; support science career retention, particularly for women; and better match skills with sectors.

According to Australia’s Chief Scientist, Cathy Foley, the country needs to “get the settings right” in the STEM workforce.

“The system needs to do more to support people once they’ve chosen a STEM career, so we don’t lose the value of this highly trained group,” she said.

“I was struck by the difference between the number of men and women on permanent contracts – the survey suggests women are much more likely to be on short-term contracts. Those contracts are almost always for three years or fewer.

“We need to increase the number of people studying STEM. We also need to better align skills with industry growth areas to correct the mismatch between demand and supply. We’re not necessarily training people in the right areas – engineering, mathematics and physics, for example, are areas of chronic shortage.”

The STEM Career Pathways report included a survey of more than 3,500 people with STEM qualifications, and informed the Government’s Diversity in STEM review.

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