Getting serious about fixing the leaky bucket of women and girls in STEMM

A recent interview with Canadian IT Professional Cleonki Kesidis captured the broken system of STEMM

A recent interview with Canadian IT Professional Cleonki Kesidis captured the broken system of STEMM

Last Sunday February 11 saw us celebrate the International Day for Women & Girls in Science.  In 2018 there is hopefulness that we may finally be at the tipping point where real culture and system change is going to happen in STEMM. However, there remains concerning evidence of systemic issues which need to be dealt with to ensure true equality can exist within STEMM.

In positive news, we are finally seeing a combined effort from the Australian Federal government, industry, our universities, and the Australian Academy of Science, calling for girls to study STEMM subjects and consider a career in science. This support is based on their understanding that science and gender equality are vital to Australian innovation, economic and societal cohesion. Such strategic partnerships are great to see, and are critical to future success, as there is endless evidence that when all the players in a system are working together is when real change can happen.

On January 26, we celebrated the quantum leap into the limelight of Professor of Physics Michelle Symonds as 2018 Australian of the Year. She received the award for her outstanding contribution to the field of quantum physics and digital technology. Her inclusive call to action was that we need to be teaching all students – girls and boys – to have high expectations of themselves, which I fully endorse.

However, despite these positive developments, there remains barriers within STEMM that limit women’s ability to thrive. A key challenge of concern to me is Professor Symonds's invisibility to many in the Australian community prior to her award, a systemic issue faced by many women leaders in their fields. Professor Jenny Martin, the only female award winner in the science category this year, also highlighted this public invisibility of women. She stated ‘there are so many incredible women scientists out there,’ and thus recognition should reflect women’s actual achievements in the field, rather than being under recognised, as they have been for centuries.

It is of vital importance to increase the visibility of women in STEMM within businesses, government, and research as the importance of role models cannot be understated, and young women struggle to rise to leadership if they don’t recognise diverse women to look up to who have achieved their goals. 

Canadian IT professional Cleonki Kesidis captured the failing of the STEMM system through sharing her own story of a negative corporate experience despite being a high performing professional. Her words:

“Pouring more girls into this broken system (STEMM) is as useless as pouring water into a leaky bucket,”

I think very articulately captures the challenges and highlights the need for actual system change rather than just believing time will fix these issues. It is critical to focus on solving the problems that force women to quit by changing workplace culture and policies through educating and involving everybody.

Her experiences were reflected in the latest Australian FITT (Females in IT and Telecommunications) report which highlighted the ‘boys club’ nature of Australia’s IT industry and Harvey Weinstein-esque behaviour permeating the workplace culture. 

Because of these issues, it’s more important than ever for everyone to take personal action to increase the visibility of the talented women who surround us. We can do this by tapping them on the shoulder and encouraging them to go for that role, that promotion, to chair or speak on that panel, to apply for that award, or for that leadership role. Remember that no–one makes it on their own, they make it with continual support through mentoring and sponsoring, encouragement, and recognition of their efforts.

So, what’s our appetite for change?

With these recent developments it’s clear we’ve made some improvements but still have a way to go to ensure women are able to be recognised and contribute their best work within STEMM. The question is:

Do we continue our focus on fixing women, driving incremental change through training and educating them, or, are we finally going to get serious about redesigning the STEMM system and culture so that everyone can thrive on a level playing field?

We need to accept the evidence that it won’t matter how many talented women we feed into the STEMM pipeline, we won’t make a significant difference until we take both bold and small actions to fix the structural and cultural issues. What’s more is that, focus group research I’ve undertaken has shown the current system isn’t working for many men either, who no longer have traditional family structures with wives at home and thus less flexibility.

So, what is the point of a system that works only for a privileged few?

Let’s step up this International Day of Women & Girls in Science, and build a STEMM culture that works for the majority, not the minority.

Let’s move beyond a policy and programmatic approach to build a culture from which everyone will benefit.

This is about going beyond the usual suspects who have traditionally been leading the change agenda, to instead engage and involve everyone. The end game of this will be utilising all of our Australian talent; we will deliver science that will more likely solve the complex problems of today’s world, along with better and more inclusive solutions for all Australians.

If you would like more information on how to build an inclusive workplace culture, request a copy of my free 3 stage Diversity & Inclusion Strategy Generational Impact Model © today. 

Image via Toronto Star. 

Fiona KrautilComment