Thu, 20 Aug 2015 - 21:00
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Women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths)

In this National Science Week, there has been a significant emphasis on encouraging more girls to study, and women to work in, STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths).

For example, the University of NSW held a ‘Women in Science Leadership Symposium’ to celebrate the achievements of Australian women in science, with speakers including NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer Professor Mary O'Kane, Australian Museum CEO Kim McKay and Scientia Professor Veena Sahajwalla. I recently had the opportunity to meet Prof Sahajwalla – we were discussing her work in materials science and the collaboration she has formed with Robological. She is a strong advocate for attracting more girls to STEM subjects.

A few days ago I joined a Year 12 maths class at Turramurra High where Dr Christophe Doche of Macquarie University gave a lecture on cryptography and the use of mathematical concepts. (Personally I found his explanation of public key–private key encryption to be extremely illuminating.) This event formed part of a national CSIRO program to encourage STEM education. The class was roughly 50:50 boys and girls and pleasingly Dr Doche and Turramurra High head of maths Ali Razzaghi-Pour specifically encouraged the girls in the class to consider STEM careers. As CSIRO points out, 75 per cent of the fastest growing occupations require STEM training, but participation in STEM subjects is declining in Australia.

Another advocate I met recently is Dr. Elizabeth Eastland, CEO of the University of Wollongong’s iAccelerate facility. Under her leadership, iAccelerate is close to achieving its goal of having a female co-founder in half of its in-house start-ups.

Dr Eastland pointed me towards some recent work at the University of Adelaide, looking at IT and engineering enrolments in Australia. You can read the report here.

The number of women enrolled in engineering courses has risen from 10,000 in 2001 to 18,000 by 2013. Over the same period total engineering enrolments rose from 60,000 to 80,000 – so the share of engineering students who are women is now approaching 25 per cent. It could be a lot higher – but these are encouraging signs of progress.

The numbers for IT enrolments are less encouraging – in both absolute terms and in gender shares. Total IT enrolments have dropped from close to 80,000 in 2002 to just over 50,000 in 2013 – and of that number, female enrolments have gone from 20,000 in 2002 to just 10,000 in 2006 – a number which has stayed flat since then.

The University of Adelaide report points to similarly low enrolment rates for females in Computer Science and Engineering in the US.

This issue deserves our attention for many reasons – including the importance of increasing the total number of students studying STEM in Australia. If we do not have enough STEM students – and if girls and women are particularly underrepresented – then one effective pathway to increase total numbers is to focus particularly on girls and women.

The Abbott Government is working to boost support for STEM subjects in schools with $12 million investment, including funding to provide innovative mathematics resources for primary and secondary school teachers and students, and for greater exposure to computer coding across different year levels in Australian schools.  As part of this we are working to increase student participation in the ‘Summer schools for STEM students’ programme, and there is a focus on increasing participation by girls in these summer schools.