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Coalition’s $31.2m commitment to women’s STEM careers wins praise

The Coalition’s announcement on the eve of the federal election that it would commit $31.2 million to support women looking to choose and pursue STEM careers was greeted with unanimous optimism by tertiary groups and institutions, including Universities Australia.

The election promise – which would initiate internships and post-school career advice – was designed to encourage female students into future-proofing disciplines and enables them to realise their full potential,  Universities Australia deputy chief executive Catriona Jackson said.

There is a great need for such programs to exist in order to expose young people, especially women, to the marvels of science and, more importantly, to how rewarding and limitless STEM careers can be, Jackson said. The rewards reaped, she added, are threefold – for the individual, industry and the national economy.

The program has the potential to address a long-standing trend in which many women take up STEM subjects during their tertiary degrees but eventually select other career paths. It is similar to the notably successful Canadian internship model, which places particular emphasis on internships for PhD researchers in industry and has led to a ratio of seven researchers for every 1000 workers.

“The internships and post-school career advice program will be the panacea for young women on the cusp of their careers, as it will ensure they have the support to translate their university work into something productive and promising,” Jackson said. “It also builds on a growing number of government and university initiatives, including the [Science in Australia Gender Equity] SAGE program, all aimed at redressing this trend.”

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  1. Are they doing anything to address the sexism in STEM businesses? Adivsing STEM businesses that a whole bunch of graduates are coming that don’t look like their current employees? Organisational change management is difficult and costly. Withouth it, however, we will probably keep losing talented, qualified young women to other fields. Currently, the attrition rate is 50%.
    We mostly don’t even know which businesses are STEM. Is finance? Medicine? Agriculture? Do we know which STEM roles people are likely to do? Because many of them are physical, remote and require twelve-hour shifts. Part of the training we do for some STEM roles should be physical – including stamina and weight-based training, especially where there is likely to be a manual labour component, as in agriculture, heavy industry and truck or forklift driving.
    There is also a social milieu, which university training does not prepare graduates for. Do you know how to talk to someone who got out of prison yesterday? Has it occurred to you that you might need to, if you’re studying geology or engineering? If you’re gaily encouraging your daughters into STEM, have you considered that they will need these skills? And that learning them may change the way they speak and act?
    What about a woman who works on a minesite as a cleaner or caterer, who has no STEM qualification at all? The great bulk of STEM roles are not for university graduates. If we really are serious about increasing STEM workforce participation, especially for women and people form CALD backgrounds, we should look at the actual jobs people actually do, and consider the training they will really need, which may be in TAFEs or on short courses. STEM is often a working class world. We should consider the possibilities, not just for those lucky enough to get into university, but for all people considering STEM as a career. It may be that these opportunities are good for women who come from families who already work in STEM fields, because the social load is lighter. However, customising the education process so that it fits more women from these backgrounds would be very difficult in prestigious educational institutions.
    I believe we need to take a deeper dive into what STEM actually is, who works there, where the opportunities are, and which industries are more likely to support long careers, before we blindly shovel more women into the big end of the pipeline.

  2. Rupinder K Kanwar

    Agree with Jude.

    Also we definitely need to look for the reasons why women leave careers in STEM after some time? Why is there dead end for women in STEM related careers in Universities and other organisations?

    If the young women from school (level) see more examples of successful STEM careers for women in community, they will automatically select STEM.

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