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Women in STEM: Still playing catch-up

While the federal government’s Stem Equity Monitor 2021 showed improvements for girls’ and women’s representation and participation in STEM study and careers, it also highlighted that there remains work to be done. The survey found:

  • Women made up less than a quarter of students studying STEM in 2019 (22 per cent of enrolments and 24 per cent of completions of total STEM VET and university enrolments).
  • Five years after graduating, men with a STEM qualification were 1.8 times more likely to be working in a STEM-qualified occupation compared to their women peers.
  • 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.

Dynamic Business sat down with women in STEM to talk about their personal journey and their thoughts about creating greater inclusion and diversity.

Ola Barshtman, Systems Engineering Manager, Elenium

“I think it’s important to address the prejudice and inequality that still exists in the tech sector. I’m a mechanical engineer and I’ve always worked in male-dominated environments. Throughout my career, I have not found any gender-specific skills that are required to do this job well. 

“When I was finishing my B.Sc in Mechanical Engineering 16 years ago, in Tel Aviv University, there were 80 people in my course and only 10 per cent were female. Historically, engineering was considered a man’s job. But the historical reasons for that prejudice are no longer valid.

“Unfortunately, I think the global pandemic has created an even bigger inequality between men and women. I know of many women who had full-time roles and had to sacrifice them to look after children when schools and daycare were closed. 

In my opinion, the current culture, childcare availability, and fees are the biggest roadblocks to women’s ability to work full time. Ultimately childcare needs to be cheaper or properly funded to enable more women to go back to work and make it financially viable. 

“There should be more women working in the technology sector because diversity is good for businesses and teams, and we should start introducing technology as early as primary school. Young children might not understand what a mechanical engineer does or what roles could be available to them in the IT sector.

“In saying that I can see that this is changing, as my 11-year-old daughter has been learning coding skills at school. We all have a responsibility to talk about different career paths with our children and encourage them to think about roles outside of the traditional ones dominated by women.

“It’s not just about attracting women to the tech sector but retaining them. When choosing an employer, it’s important to ask about work-life balance and flexibility as well as opportunities to work from home or part-time. There is no reason for the pay gap to still be present in Australia. If the person has the right qualifications and experience for the job, they should get equal pay. We should be addressing that and the gender diversity issues not only in the tech sector but in every other part of the economy and break the bias.”

Jacqueline Jayne, Security Awareness Advocate, KnowBe4

“Historically, cybersecurity and IT have been a focus for men. During my last year at Highschool (1989), I had high hopes to pursue a career in Information Security as a System Analyst and was told by multiple career counsellors, in no certain terms, that I should look for another career path as a career in computers (technology) wasn’t suitable for me as a woman. 

“This broke my heart as my grades in Computing (the subject at the time) were outstanding and my teacher gave me extra work to do as my brain was clearly designed for it.  Not to mention I loved it and could lose myself in writing code for hours. 

“I did follow my passion eventually.  I don’t have tertiary qualifications, but what I do have is a very particular set of skills, skills that I have acquired over a very long career.  Skills which make me a nightmare for anyone who thinks cybersecurity education and awareness is not necessary.  

“For us to #BreakTheBias here roles in cybersecurity need to be encouraged at an early age.  Things have moved in a positive direction since 1989, however, I believe that the element of creativity and neurodiversity has been forgotten as the focus is on STEM.  

“The bias in hiring women in cybersecurity is still evident by the lack of women in the sector.  I would like to point out that this is not about filling quotas or ticking boxes.  

“Working in cybersecurity is not easy.  The hours are long, the stressors are high, depending on your role it can be hard.  Bias can come into play here where some hiring managers for new roles may overlook applications from women believing that the job might be too much for them to handle.  

“For us to #BreakTheBias here employers must take the lead and ensure that a career in cybersecurity is welcoming for everyone.  Transferable skills such as communication, change management, learning and development, stakeholder management, project management are all required in cybersecurity.  

“Of course, there is bias in the workplace with only 24 per cent of women working in cybersecurity.  There is also a huge gap in women in leadership positions within cybersecurity.  On more than one occasion, I have seen women, who are as capable as their male peers (sometimes with more experience than them) be overlooked for leadership roles.  

“To #BreakTheBias in the workplace will take time.  Situational awareness, emotional intelligence and understanding what bias is and how unconscious bias works is a good place to start.”

Danielle Dungo, Senior Manager, Strategy & Sales Operations, Lacework

“Technology is still very male-centric. I’d like to see the industry become more active in recruiting more women with diverse backgrounds. Hiring scopes are still too narrow.

“What I’ve come across in working with people is that diverse ideas get you to innovation faster. If you have the same cut of people, there’s a limit to what you’ll get out of it. If you add in someone from a different industry, for example, the ideas he/she will bring to the table will be entirely new. Before moving into operations, I was an EA. I looked at things from a different lens to someone who started as an operations intern.

“I studied sociology and legal studies at university but knew I’d like to get into tech as everything is moving digital, especially in SF. You can’t go to school for operations, so I studied people, and that’s how I process things. My job is largely thinking about why particular decisions were made, what were their driving factors, and what’s the end goal.

“The point is you don’t need a technical background to work in technology. When I mentor girls and young women, I tell them it’s crucial to have a boss who is willing to teach them. Anything can be learned. I didn’t know what a CTO was, but I had someone willing to take a chance on me and mentor me in the right way. Always pay attention to who your boss and advocates will be.

“It’s always a little daunting being the youngest in the room, and it doesn’t help that I’m very petite physically. My first boss ever was Erica Schultz, who is now the President of Confluent. She gave me the advice that how people dress and act may seem intimidating, but at the end of the day, everyone is a person. Have the confidence to speak out and voice an opinion, don’t be intimidated by titles and stature and tenure, and always be an advocate for yourself. You are where you are because of your morals and achievement and reminding yourself of this helps to build confidence.

“Secondly, if you’re in a space where you’re challenged, that’s okay. That means you’re growing.”

Rosie Cairnes, VP APAC, Skillsoft

“It’s been two years since the start of the ‘pink pandemic’ when the lives of women around the globe were disproportionately affected across all facets of their lives by the impacts of COVID-19. And it is now largely thanks to women that a global phenomenon like the Great Resignation is occurring around us and shifting the foundations of how workplaces operate.

“Businesses have a huge role to play in the outcomes from women across society at large. Companies today have no excuse when it comes to building a culture that is uplifting and engaging, with diverse and inclusive practices that enable opportunity for all. The pandemic has only accelerated this on both sides of the gender divide, and the financial benefits of doing so are well proven.

“This should be done through principles and policies; putting structures in place that reflect the inclusive culture the business wants to achieve. It must also be done through knowledge building. Ongoing learning and development is essential to reducing bias and discrimination, and with on-demand learning so accessible, every employee should have the opportunity and be required to take part in building their awareness and personal tool kits. Learning that focuses on helping women to build their sense of place and worth at work is especially powerful. This could include courses in areas like how to establish a personal ‘brand’ and build confidence, embodying the power of soft skills like empathy and collaboration, and managing perfectionism.  

“It’s concerning that women in IT still feel they must work much harder than male co-workers to gain respect and many have experienced scepticism or dismissiveness from male peers. According to the Skillsoft Global Knowledge 2021 Skills and Salary Report, the highest percentage of men in leadership roles have 15-20 years of experience, while the highest percentage of women have 26 or more years on the job.

“The IT industry needs to address its gender bias problem across the employee lifecycle – from creating more pathways to enter IT roles from non-IT backgrounds, to mentoring opportunities, flexible and progressive workplace policies, and education across the organisation targeted at real behavioural change from the top down.”

Jane Nguyen, CEO, Pretzel Lab

“While there is some prejudiced, conscious bias still floating about from the wrong individuals, the bulk of the bias faced by women in business is in the form of unconscious bias.

“Both men and women have a deep-rooted unconscious expectation that women are warm and men are assertive that stems from hundreds of years of society’s depiction of gender roles. That unconscious expectation extends to the perception that leaders must also be assertive, which leads to the ‘double bind’ faced by women the world over. Namely, if women are warm, they can’t make effective leaders, but if they behave more assertively, we reject them because they aren’t behaving warmly. 

“Personally, most of the bias I have faced that has hindered my career growth has come from other women who have rejected me for being too assertive and not reflecting a warm, nurturing woman. The real challenge for women lies in finding the balance between being effective as a leader and not losing sight of who you are at the core.

“There is no panacea to addressing unconscious bias and the solution will be long and multi-faceted. There is a very slow movement in the way history will be re-written to reflect the roles women have played that break gender stereotypes. In addition, the media plays a crucial role in normalising women’s roles beyond the nurturer and we’re starting to see that now as we welcome female superheroes, hackers, ninjas and assassins! 

“These things will go a long way to rewriting the unconscious bias of our next generation. In the meantime, both men and women have a role to play in demonstrating that warmth is more effective in leadership than assertion (in fact there’s lots of data that proves this). This will shift society’s perception, firstly to accept that warm male leaders are more effective, which will pave the way for warm female leaders. Everyone needs to do the work, every day. 

“As Hillary Clinton said, ‘although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling…it’s got about 18 million cracks in it…filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.’ That’s how I see our role now, ensuring that everything we do should make it easier for the next woman. Maybe we will truly know that the unconscious bias has been removed when we no longer need an International Women’s Day.”

Adeline Fernandez, VP Finance – Fluent Commerce

“I think many people wonder why we haven’t dealt with the equal pay gap yet. Why is it so hard to pay men and women the same for doing the same roles? But this is a misconception. It’s about how much men earn compared to women and in Australia. And there is still a gap. That gap is 13.8 per cent. It really comes down to the roles men and women take on in our society and how these are valued.

“I’m part of the DE&I enterprise resource group at Fluent Commerce and our work is very much about moving people from the ‘unconscious’ to the ‘conscious’. We want to make people aware of their biases because that’s the first step to making change.  It’s all very well to support events or groups that nurture female talent, but from a financial perspective, what can we do internally to really make a difference? It has to start at the top and the leadership team has to be committed to ‘breaking the bias’ effectively.

“As a technology business, we move very quickly and unfortunately that is a challenge when it comes to hiring a diverse workforce. You want the most experienced person to come in and get on with the job. You don’t really have the time to train people up. 

“As humans, we tend to ‘recruit our own shadow’ – people we get on with, people who have similar backgrounds to ourselves, but this is unconscious bias. At Fluent, we’ve introduced unconscious bias training into our learning and development programs and it’s now part of our onboarding process.

“DE&I needs to be ‘baked into’ career frameworks, our recruitment and talent retention strategies and all company policies. We need to take DE&I initiatives beyond conversations and for companies to take conscious steps within their organisations to break the bias.”

Dora Peake, Group GM People & Culture, Versent

“We still see an underrepresentation of women in our sector (technology) Increasing the visibility of women, and championing their contributions, within technology is key. Most of us are in tune with the advantages of diversity of thought, and by affording women the opportunity of making meaningful achievements in Technology, we can turn the page in challenging traditional beliefs as to what success looks like in an inclusive and progressive context.

“Addressing gender bias is no easy feat, considering bias originates from each of our taught and learned values and experiences. I believe that overcoming gender bias will be rooted in affirmative action: action that is taken decisively, with courage and commitment, that tackles systemic bias and behaviours which promote less inclusive workplaces. Action without genuine broad support or education that speaks to the heart of the issue may leave some lacking personal connection to why inclusion is important to them. 

“Our approach at Versent is to start a movement that will signal our intent to break the cycle of gender bias and afford our female talent platforms to truly shine. Firstly, we must define the meaning of what action we need to take, then create the movement of people and support actions at the grassroots. Then we will be able to create the momentum to influence upwards to create moments that matter for our diverse group of people.”

Christina Lord, Product Marketing Leader, Shopify

“In my career, I’ve been fortunate to join early-stage startups that have allowed me to explore a variety of different roles that have led to what I’m passionate about today. As someone who works closely with product in the tech industry, it is clear to me that gender biases continue to stand in the way of women being properly represented. This is multiplied when we think about intersectionality about the representation of women of colour, Indigenous women or women with disabilities in the industry.

“What’s been valuable for me as a woman of colour in tech is understanding why I’m in those rooms and what I can bring to the table. The tech industry struggles with diversity and that can impact the diversity of thought that is present within teams making decisions about products that are meant to be used by everyone in the world – including minorities. 

“It is important to realize that in today’s market, thinking differently is critical in product conversations. What I’ve observed and experienced is that people like me, who come from different backgrounds and follow non-traditional paths to tech, bring something valuable to the table. When you think differently, you challenge commonly held assumptions that can ultimately make or break a product. This is an advantage women and people of other marginal groups have and should embrace.”

Sita Bhat, Managing Consultant, Sekuro

“Traditionally, men are exposed to STEM much earlier than women. It’s hard to enter the security field without knowing someone, and this can perpetuate a cycle where we see more men taking on roles already held by men. It’s no surprise that the industry is infamous for its tech-bro culture, which can be intimidating for women trying to enter the industry while feeling like they don’t fit the mould. 

“To break these gender biases so that women and girls are empowered to take up space in STEM fields without fear or preconceived assumptions that they aren’t the ‘right’ fit, we need to integrate programs and initiatives. That is, making them neutral. For example, whatever coding skills predominantly white men have, they should be able to pass them down onto women, women of colour and women of other minority groups instead of having different learning programs for different groups. If tech companies shared the resources they used as they were coming up and learning, women would have better access to tools that would equip them for the role. Many of the girls I came across do a lot of pre-reading and if the tech industry creates a culture of sharing learning materials, you’d find more women in entrepreneurial roles.”

Anna Komok, CMO, HypeAuditor

Gender biases are detrimental as they continue to hold women back, especially in the business world and in senior leadership roles. In industries where women are disproportionately under-represented such as the IT sector, it can be very intimidating to be the only woman in the room and challenging to speak up. Women are impacted by gender biases from the beginning of the stack of employability all the way up the food chain, which keeps limiting her career progression, performance at work and financial achievements. 

“If we want to drive real change towards gender equality within the workplace, businesses have to first and foremost learn to recognise when gender bias make its way into their organisation and understand all the forms in which it can manifest. Only then, will they be able to address the biases by fostering a culture of inclusivity and belonging to eliminate discrimination and bias. It’s also important for employers to realise that empowering women through training and access to resources is not enough. They have to also provide the right supportive culture where women can thrive.”

Brenda Gaddi, Managing Director and Founder, Women of Colour Australia

“Gender biases for women of colour are tenfold, particular in an industry such as IT where women are already disproportionately underrepresented. Women of colour are held to different professional standards. Their behaviour is more heavily scrutinised, they may lack support or advocacy from colleagues and employers, and are often overlooked for any career advancement opportunities, especially for senior leadership roles. 

“Some of the gender biases women of colour face in the workplace in Australia are based on their “broken English” – as for many culturally and linguistically diverse women, English is not their primary language. Foreign accents, pronunciations and different intonations in the IT sector where there’s so much tech jargon are looked down upon and reflect negatively on the women of colour’s performance or career progression and even on the way she presents herself in a professional setting, where she may be silenced because of it.

“The prevalence of linguistic prejudice for women of colour is an unspoken gender bias that often goes under the radar as a contributing factor that continues to hold women of colour back. Linguistic prejudice is linked to race and class and is a form of microaggression that most women of colour face every day in the business world. If we want to break the bias for women in STEM this year, it is time to celebrate and embrace linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism and see it as a strength instead of a weakness.”

Josephine Lanzarone, Vice President of Marketing for APAC, Pluralsight

“The importance of having senior role models for women in male-dominated industries is immeasurable. Having spent much of my 20-year career in the technology industry with little female representation around me was challenging. And while it’s fantastic that we highlight and celebrate women who have advanced in their field and paved the way for others to follow on International Women’s Day, we need to ensure these stories are told, and mentors are visible, year-round. 

“I encourage women at all levels to consider what opportunities and responsibilities they have to share what they’ve learned with the next generation to ensure they have an easier path to follow. Be available for people to ask questions and provide insights that will give them the confidence to approach challenges head on instead of circling around them. Not only would this create more role models today but help build a pipeline of future mentors.”

Jill Macmurchy, Vice President of Solutions Engineering, Confluent APAC

Female leaders discuss what needs to change to achieve gender balance in STEM.

“In light of today’s world, it’s brilliant to see that we have made such great progress in areas of diversity, equity and inclusion. This is an especially exciting development for the stereotypical male-dominated environments, such as my own industry of technology. Often majority groups unintentionally set the culture of an organisation so whilst it can be difficult to identify and change unconscious biases in ourselves, and even more so in others, acknowledging that they exist is a good starting point. It’s something that we need to approach with our head and our hearts, particularly in a workplace as it can have a significant impact on people-related decisions such as recruitment, promotion, performance management and idea generation.
 
“Even so, no matter the improvement we’ve seen over the years, we still need to persist in driving the value of diversity within businesses. By pushing for inclusivity and embracing uniqueness, companies can build a culture that promotes the contribution of different voices and perspectives to offer far more strategic, innovative, and precise ways of thinking.”


Read more:Ladies, take a seat: adapting recruitment processes to improve gender diversity

Read more:Senior women in science: Fixing the dry spell with HR


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Clare Loewenthal

Clare Loewenthal

Clare is an author, business commentator and passionate contributor to Dynamic Business. She was the Founder and Publisher of Dynamic Small Business magazine, which became Australia’s largest small business publication.

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