How can we encourage more women to pursue STEM careers?

This speech was delivered at the national finals of the UN Youth Australia Public Speaking competition in April, 2020. While writing this speech, I was lucky enough to hear the experiences of many women in STEM careers. A special thank you to Himani Mazumdar, Shamaruh Mirza, Anee Azim, Camila Bachet, and Professor Katie Allen MP for taking the time out of their busy schedules to share their experiences as the inspiring and bold women that they are.

How can we effect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feels welcome to participate in the conversation?

This sentiment resonates deeply with all who seek gender equality, as it does for my topic: if we want to encourage more women to pursue STEM careers this conversation for change is vital, but will not be successful unless everyone is involved.

In recent times, this conversation has begun to follow a generic, arguably tokenistic pattern: female STEM professionals present keynote speeches at schools or conferences about the cool things they are doing, attempting to encourage young girls to pursuit STEM careers. And this approach is working to an extent- we have seen a clear rise in the number of women pursuing undergraduate STEM degrees. But the progress stops there.

There is still a widespread absence of women actually pursuing a career in STEM or attaining leadership positions. So, the question we need to ask today is this: ‘What is happening between the start of an undergraduate STEM degree and progress through the career ladder? What is holding women back?”

Firstly, conservative reluctance and inflexibility in the workplace, and society as a whole, present huge and often insurmountable obstacles for most women’s career paths. Most women are under strict social pressure to be mothers and are generally expected to shoulder the role of primary caregiver. This pressure means that flexible work schedules are imperative to encourage women to continue in their pursuit for STEM careers. However, flexibility should not just be something for women. If women and men both have flexibility within their schedules, it means that it is easier to share household and family responsibilities which in turn will mean that children will grow up without considering such stringent gender roles.

Secondly, one-dimensional, outdated thinking, and an ‘old boys club mindset’ makes it more difficult for women to pursuit STEM careers. The old saying still seems to apply: ‘men check one box out of ten and they go for it. Even if women check nine boxes out of ten, they can’t.’ Such an outdated, one-dimensional and simplistic recruiting policy blatantly discourages women from considering such careers. As a result, industries miss out on all the potential talent, enthusiasm and expertise from women, who constitute approximately half of our intellectual capital. All lost due to grossly inaccurate psychological clichés.

Thirdly, women are also being confronted by the differences between their relatively progressive university education and the conservative realities of working life in the industry. There are very few opportunities for students to understand the obstacles and challenges of working in each industry, regardless of their gender. Having the opportunity to discuss these realities with mentors or industry professionals would benefit both men and women. While many courses do offer chances to undertake internships and placements, it is nowhere near enough to inspire professional optimism or confidence.

These changes- flexibility, change of mindsets and a real understanding of realities of professional life-  need to be applied to the unequal, intimidating norms that are currently in place in STEM industries.

And what is the first step to changing norms? It’s breaking the silence around the problem that always sustains the status quo. Women are being excluded from potential careers in STEM and we need to talk about it. Academics, industry representatives and future STEM professionals all need to be sitting at that table, having the conversation that is needed if we are to encourage women to pursue, and realise, their enthusiasm and expertise for a career in STEM. Students need  the opportunity to be able to get ‘book smart’ from the knowledge provided by academics, and at the same time, the opportunity to get ‘street smart’ from the advice from industry professionals who will be their future mentors and colleagues.

All stakeholders at that table need to be willing and ready to create change. We have had enough of tokenistic, one-sided discussions. These conversations need to be a catalyst for change and include all key stakeholders regardless of gender.

Changes like flexibility, mindsets and social stigma, and adequate preparation for a career are not changes that will happen overnight or even by law. Biases and stereotypes are so ingrained and present within the things we do, whether we realise it or not, a law or a ban will not change it. As simple as it would be to implement a law for flexible workplaces, or to mandate a change in mindset, life and human nature doesn’t work like that. It is unrealistic to suggest that it would. We rather need conversation to understand the issues within industries and communities so that we can begin actively raising awareness and pursuing change.

There is so much we stand to gain from women being in STEM careers-economically, socially and intellectually. We need conversation to ensure that women will be assessed for their work rather than their gender. We need conversation so that the STEM industry can welcome the intellect and passion of thousands of inquiring minds.

The key to real change lies not only in a conversation in which everyone is welcome to participate, but also in a conversation where everyone is willing to contribute and innovate.  

Will our society be brave enough to finally start a conversation that matters?

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