Three Steps to Increase Diversity in STEM

3 November 2016

Blog: by Dr Rowan Brookes

In mid-October the Australian Internet Government Forum (auIGF) convened a panel on ‘Getting Girls into STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths)’. The panel was comprised of Leonie Walsh, Associate Professor Catherine Lang, Renee Noble and Luan Heimlich. I was fortunate enough to moderate the discussion between these talented and knowledgeable women.

With this year’s conference theme on ‘A focus on a competitive digital future,’ it was an important conversation to take centre stage. Developing a diverse future workforce in STEM will ensure we can meet the high demand for STEM related skills, build innovative teams and develop creative solutions to the complex challenges on the horizon. We need all of our available talent to achieve the high demands for these skills that are forecasted.

The panel was unanimous about three approaches that are needed to reach gender equality in STEM.

Girls don’t need to change what they are doing
Associate Professor Catherine Lang provocatively suggested that the title of the panel, ‘how do we get girls into STEM?,’ needs to be reframed. She said that when we ask such a question it indicates that the deficit lies with the girls. We know many girls start their schooling interested in STEM, but turn away when they encounter cultural barriers (e.g. they hear messages such as ‘girls aren’t good at maths’), or physical barriers (no access to STEM subjects, or STEM trained teachers). We need systemic interventions that provide an enabling environment for girls to take up STEM, rather than imply that girls need to change what they are doing. She suggested we could do this by ensuring we work with current teachers and pre-service teachers to change attitudes and build STEM skills.

Focus on the pipeline
There are currently a high number of initiatives being run across Australia to engage girls into STEM. For instance, our panel members showcased the initiatives they’re involved with including ‘Girls’ Programming Network’, ‘FIRST Australia’ and ‘Go Girl’.

Despite the number of interventions, Leonie Walsh pointed out that little change has occurred in the uptake of STEM by girls. At universities in disciplines such as information technology, engineering and physics, we’re only making incremental progress in the enrolments of females. Walsh said that this may be because we are not targeting the root cause of the issue in our interventions. She explained, if teachers, parents and students don't have information that is current and in an assessable language they will struggle to make informed decisions about career options for girls in STEM. Importantly, many of these changes need to be integrated into the curriculum, as well as provided in extra-curricular programs.

Everybody has a role they can play
Creating systemic change that fixes the root of gender inequity will require many people to get involved. Through the discussion, many of the panellists raised the importance of female role models to support girls into STEM. Without the visibility of females undertaking a diverse range of STEM roles, girls won’t be attracted by the full range of opportunities available to them.  Renee Nobel outlined that having visible female role models is integral when encouraging girls to pursue STEM careers. She explained that it’s essential that we create places where girls can be exposed to various female role models from peer role models to women with established STEM careers.

Importantly, it was repeatedly suggested how critical it was to have men and women championing gender equality in STEM. Luan Heimlich closed the panel with a rousing call for people to take action. It doesn’t matter if you are technically competent in STEM, there is a role for everybody to play to achieve gender equality. It might be encouraging a young girl to give STEM subjects a try in school, mentoring female university students, right through to even starting a new initiative. Once we remove the systemic barriers that current exist more girls will continue to pursue STEM education and go on to forge their careers in STEM.

More Information
Dr Rowan Brookes works to create a science education for 21st century graduates. Rowan has over a decade of experiencing teaching undergraduate science and leading educational change initiatives. She is the Director of Education for the School of Biological Sciences and Course Director for the Global Challenges degree at Monash University. In this advanced science degree her students learn about leadership, entrepreneurship and science diplomacy. Her research focuses on employability skills in science education and educational technology. Rowan is on the advisory board for The Henley Club. She is the 2016 Telstra Business Woman of the year for Victoria (Public Sector and Academia).