Women in STEM: What’s the latest in Australia?

It’s International Women’s Day on 8 March 2022. There are also other days in the year that focus on women and girls in science. All of this attention is welcome, because frankly, Australia’s innovation system has a diversity problem. Focusing on improving the number of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) and diversity overall is important.

Innovation isn’t effective unless it’s representative and because it isn’t, Australia’s prosperity is under threat…

At Innovate Communicate we advocate for diversity and inclusion in the innovation ecosystem and in particular in STEM fields.

Where are all the women? 

A key issue in science, technology, engineering and mathematics is the lower numbers of women. Here are some key figures from a range of recent publications:

  1. Women made up less than a quarter of students studying STEM in 2019. (STEM Equity Monitor: Data Highlights 2021)
  2. Women make up 47.5% of the Australian workforce and 16% of the STEM-skilled workforce*, but only 8% of Chief Executive Officers (CEO) and heads of business in STEM businesses in Australia. (Women in STEM Decadal Plan, 2019)
  3. Only 12% of STEM academics at the professorial level are women while in the private sector, women represent one in four STEM-qualified professionals (27%). (The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women in the STEM workforce by Australia’s Chief Scientist, 2020)
  4. The proportion of women working across all STEM-qualified industries has continually increased to 28% in 2020. (Second national data report on girls and women in STEM)
  5. The most common broad field of qualification for females was Science: 45% of the female STEM-qualified labour force (Women Staying in the STEM Workforce Report 2021). Then:
    • Information Technology: 21%
    • Engineering: 20%
    • Agriculture and Environmental Science 10%
    • Mathematics: 4%.
  6. The proportion of key management personnel and senior managers who are women continuously increased to 23% in 2020. (Second national data report on girls and women in STEM)
  7. There is a significant gender pay gap between qualified men and women working in STEM. The gender pay gap in STEM-qualified industries was $28,994 in 2020 compared to $25,534 across all industries. (Second national data report on girls and women in STEM)
  8. In 2019, fewer than one in four applications for Australian Research Council STEM project grants were led by women (24%). (The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women in the STEM workforce by Australia’s Chief Scientist, 2020
  9. In 2018, fewer than one in three applications for National Health and Medical Research Council grants were led by women (28%). (Australian Government. ARC data sourced from the ARC, NHMRC data sourced from the STEM Equity Monitor. Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources https://www.industry.gov.au/data-and-publications/stem-equity-monitor)


* [The STEM-skilled workforce was defined as: those members of the Australian population with a postsecondary qualification at the level of Certificate III or above in any of the following fields of education as defined by the Australian Standard Classification of Education (ASCED) (ABS, 2001): Natural and Physical Sciences (NPS); Information Technology (IT); Engineering and Related Technologies (ERT); Agriculture, Environment and Related Studies (AERS). Noting that the field of Mathematical Sciences has been extracted from the Natural and Physical Sciences.]

Why do numbers of women in STEM matter?

  • diversity is crucial for innovation 
  • companies with gender-diverse boards perform better
  • STEM, along with other fields, should represent our community.


But hang on, aren’t STEM jobs growing almost twice as fast as other jobs?

Yes. According to the Department of Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business, between November 2014 and November 2019, employment in STEM occupations grew by 19.7%. This was 1.9 times higher than the growth rate for other occupations.

They also said that the trend is set to continue: “Over the five years to May 2024, the department projects STEM occupations will grow by 11.6% (303,200 people), whereas all other jobs are projected to grow at 7.5% (771,800 people) over the same period.”

It’s more important than ever that women are encouraged and enabled to work in STEM industries.

Less diverse talent = less innovation

The astonishing under-representation and underutilisation of talent means that research and innovation is suffering. Progress is slower on finding solutions for many of our economic, ecological and societal problems.

Many women in STEM-related fields are struggling to achieve their potential impact. Women and girls face a myriad of systemic barriers and cultures. Inequality, stereotypes, bias and discrimination against women are strong forces in STEM-related fields. Research also shows that women studying Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) have the highest rate of attrition following the completion of their degree. This phenomenon is referred to as ‘the leaky STEM pipeline’.

Here’s a great image from the Women in STEM Decadal Plan that shows what’s going on.

Career Progression Pipeline. Source: Women in STEM Decadal Plan Australia

“Simply put, diversity of ideas and experience equals better results.”

– Cathy Foley, National Press Club Address, March 2021 

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact 

The health measures implemented in Australia in response to the COVID-19 pandemic led to massive disruptions in workplaces, schools and childcare centres. In Australia women have been more likely to lose jobs or need to reduce work to care for children or family members.

For many women working in STEM fields, the COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact.

Watch this space though as more evidence emerges in coming months and years:

  1. One of the Key Findings from The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women in the STEM workforce 2020 report was: “Early evidence on the impact of the epidemic suggests women face disproportionate increases in caring responsibilities and disruptions to working hours, job security and paid work capacity. This is most acute for those with children under 12.”
  2. Australia’s professional, scientific and technical services industry recorded job losses of 5.6% from mid-March to mid-April 2020. Jobs in this field were down 6.3% for women and 4.8% for men. “Research sector STEM jobs are at ongoing risk because of income losses to universities and the flow-on effect to collaborating institutions.” (The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women in the STEM workforce 2020)
  3. “Prior to COVID-19, women and men conducting academic research in STEM produced comparable numbers of research publications per working year (although women published fewer papers over their entire careers due to career disruptions). Early evidence suggests women’s submission rates may have declined during the pandemic while men’s submission rates have increased – reflecting similar trends when men take paid parental leave.” (The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women in the STEM workforce 2020)
  4. Across the the Asia-Pacific region the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing gender inequity in the STEM workforce according to Impact of COVID-19 on Women in the STEM Workforce | Asia-Pacific. Worryingly the authors state: “Women in STEM have less secure employment at senior levels and are more susceptible to job loss due to the pandemic.”

“Women are generally under-represented in STEM fields and attrition at mid-career stage means that the sector is losing valuable female talent off an already low base. The global pandemic has created a further “push” factor that is likely to contribute to a greater number of women leaving STEM.”


– Professionals Australia (2021)

Some workplaces still have a long way to go

  1. Professionals Australia research shows that 46.6% of women said that in their workplace, advice or information of a technical nature was less likely to be listened to if provided by a woman than a man. This has increased from 40% in 2018. (Gap Between Policy And Practice A Key Obstacle To Gender Equity In Stem 2018, Women Staying in the STEM Workforce Report 2021)
  2. Unsupportive workplace culture has been cited as the key reason why women leave engineering in one study of 2042 graduate female engineers. (Singh et al., 2013)
  3. “Women personally experience everyday sexism in all its manifestations at least twice as much as men. The biggest difference between men and women experiencing everyday sexism in the STEM workforce occurs in the devaluing of women’s views and voices. Two thirds of women experienced their views or voices being devalued in the workplace. Yet only one third of men observed this behaviour, suggesting that this behaviour may often be normalised and invisible. This is a particular concern for the STEM workforce, where the capacity to contribute ideas and views equally in a respectful and inclusive environment is critical to driving better innovation outcomes.” (Pg 20 Harnessing Our Innovation Potential)
  4. A significant finding of the Women in STEM Decadal Plan was that while organisations may be taking actions at an individual level to support women who experience career interruptions, there is no adequate system-level method to retain women who may have experienced career interruptions.
  5. “Sexual harassment is a significant issue within STEM organisations in Australia and impacts women at a much higher rate than men.” (Women in STEM Decadal Plan)

“As we transition from primary resources to systems, processes, and technology, government and business should actively invest, support, and plan for women to be equally involved. Government needs to address the barriers that prevent women from participating and leading in STEM and green entrepreneurship as a way of growing our workforce, innovation, and capabilities.”


– Meet the Moment report (2022)

Role models and mentors matter

Having women in senior roles is a key issue that Australia’s innovation faces.

The STEM Decadal Plan said:

“What children and young adults see of STEM professionals shapes their beliefs and career aspirations, so the value of role models to aspiring STEM professionals cannot be overestimated. Yet, public representation of STEM is predominately male-dominated.”

Role models and mentors at work

  1. According to a survey done by Professionals Australia, 59.2% of respondents said that the lack of role models had significantly or moderately impeded their career advancement and 61.0% said the lack of women in senior roles had negatively impacted their progress. (Women Staying in the STEM Workforce Report 2021)
  2. Women are less likely to have high level mentors, despite being equally likely to have a mentor as men. High level / executive mentors are linked to promotion. “Men’s mentors are typically better placed to advocate for their mentees so men receive more promotions and salary increases early in their career, establishing a gender gap from the outset… fewer than 5% of the initiatives [found and reported on] to support women’s participation in STEM in Australia include mentoring, and the majority focus on secondary and tertiary levels” (pg 44, Women in STEM Decadal Plan).

Role models in the media

  1. Women are quoted as sources in 26% of science and technology related news stories  (Women for Media Report, Women’s Leadership Institute Australia 2016)
  2. Preliminary results published by Merryn McKinnon and colleagues in Gender diversity in science media still has a long way to go (2020) show that in the 468 STEM-related news articles:
    • women and men were quoted as sources in 28% (133)
    • men were exclusively quoted as sources in 52% (241) 
    • Women were exclusively quoted as sources in 20% (94).
  3. According to the Digital News Report: Australia 2021, interest in the news continues to decline, with those expressing high interest down from 64% in 2016 to 52% in 2021. Women and young people say they are underrepresented in news, with 26% of Gen Z women saying news does not give their gender enough coverage. However, the report does emphasise that local news can be an important channel for generating a sense of community. (Digital News Report: Australia 2021)

“If “we can’t be what we can’t see”, then it is vital that female scientists and science writers are prominent in the media landscape. But unfortunately, our results reveal that this landscape is still dominated by men. There are many reasons for this. But let’s be clear: confronting this problem is not a job just for women, or just for the media. This is a systemic, structural and societal problem and everyone has a part to play in formulating the solution.”

Is the under-representation of women only in STEM?

Just in case you were wondering about the representation of women in sectors other then STEM, women are under-represented in business, politics and…

Luckily it’s not all doom and gloom

There are many passionate people working hard to turn the innovation ship around. And the smart investors are backing female-led and female-founded businesses because they are more profitable.

If you have some data or a report that you think could be included above, please get in touch with us at Innovate Communicate.

References mentioned above and worth reading

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