Science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) industries are widely acknowledged as growth sectors. Today in Australia, women hold fewer than 10 percent of leadership positions in STEM related industries. This must change. In late 2021 Chief Executive Women brought women leaders in STEM together to discuss the barriers – and solutions – to increasing women’s leadership in these vital sectors.
STEM sectors are playing an increasingly important role in the Australian economy. We must secure women’s participation in these sectors – especially in leadership. Women’s leadership in STEM is vital to the success of these growth sectors. Like any industry, it is critical that women are represented at tables where decisions are made and the future is created. It is an economic imperative for the STEM sectors to draw on all available talent. The sectors must retain all talent and ensure equal pathways to leadership.
The conversations that were shared in the roundtables were confronting and eye opening. While there are a number of senior and experienced women leaders across STEM industries, it is clear that women face unique and significant challenges.
Most striking was the degree to which women, despite good intentions of many leaders, are facing pushback and exclusion and in some instances, are leaving these sectors altogether. This is clearly unacceptable for the women in the industry, a repudiation of the investment made in STEM education and STEM careers and an unsustainable path for the future of the sectors.
In this whitepaper we share the lived experience of senior women leaders in STEM, hoping this may be a catalyst for change.
Building on the commendable work that is underway in many organisations, this report outlines seven critical actions that organisations can take now. If adopted, these can address the inequality in the sectors and secure women’s leadership across STEM sectors. The actions include adopting balanced interviewing, demonstrating genuine sponsorship of talented women, ensuring foundational equity practices are in place with leaders accountable to targets and proactive efforts to retain and advance talented women. We know these actions can have impact and will enhance the pipeline of leadership talent.
While the challenging experiences of women were clear, we are optimistic because we know that many leaders in STEM understand the value women bring to these sectors. We must harness this to drive urgent action to ensure women’s leadership is prioritised today.
CEW would like to thank former Australian representative for G20 EMPOWER Council Christine McLoughlin AM and Women in STEM Ambassador Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith for their contribution and leadership in driving women’s leadership in STEM forwards. We would also like to especially thank the roundtable participants who shared their stories so generously in these important discussions.
It is to them and the women who want strong careers in STEM to whom we must promise a brighter future through the actions this report recommends.