Women are under represented in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields in education and employment, with gender disparity particularly apparent in disciplines such as mathematics, engineering and computing. This claim is well supported by the data. Only 28% of the employed STEM-qualified Australians aged 15 years and over were female in 2011, with this figure as low as 14% in the field of engineering. In the same year, only 33% of tertiary qualifications were awarded to Australian women in STEM fields. Poor participation of girls in mathematics is particularly troubling, as this is a gateway discipline to other fields. It is not only advantageous to have studied intermediate or advanced level mathematics at secondary school, but in many cases it is requisite to tertiary study in STEM disciplines, such as engineering and computing. Nonetheless, only 6.6% of all female year 12 students in Australia in 2013 studied an advanced level mathematics subject, while 17.5% took intermediate level mathematics in the same year. While participation rates in advanced mathematics are low across the board, both of these figures are lower than for their male peers.
There are a myriad of causes that contribute to the under representation of women in STEM fields. These include cultural stereotypes and ignorance of what these careers entail, as well as a lack of encouragement from teachers and parents. There are also a number of reasons it is important that this issue be addressed. In particular, there is an economic imperative to strengthen innovation and maximize productivity through the encouragement of women to stay on into STEM careers. Furthermore, there are concerns about the quality of research, labour market balance and social justice considerations effecting the common good.
The search for effective measures to address the under representation of women in mathematics and other STEM fields has always been unchartered. The causes are deeply ingrained and intertwined with historical and cultural norms. What has become clear is that there is no silver bullet. That is, no one measure will effectively reverse the problem. Also, there is no comparable country or system that can be heralded for being wholly successful in implementing any particular suite of measures and seeing their national level of female participation respond. That is not to say that progress has not been made elsewhere. Indeed, there are many examples of implemented programs and measures that can be cited as effective across the range of levers available. However, the consistency and extent of national effort required to turn around women’s participation rates in mathematics and other STEM disciplines across a system is a challenge yet to be met.
In this report, evidence of effective measures has been identified in the literature and is provided within 7 categories: Government led measures; Financial incentives; Direct support programs; Community development; School based measures; Industry or employer led measures; and Combining approaches to produce government led consistency. In this final section, two examples are provided of the most coordinated national efforts to improve women’s engagement in STEM. These are important examples are the most impactful changes must be diverse and gain broad support, if we are to effectively address the under representation of women in STEM disciplines in a sustainable way.