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Australia must encourage girls into STEM at school to develop its future workforce, report finds

Not that it would come as a surprise to any woman, particularly after the long, often dispiriting US election campaign we just witnessed, but a new report from the Office of the Chief Scientist has found that false perceptions about women’s aptitude, interest, and experience in STEM are holding back progress in science and society.

The report, Busting Myths About Women in STEM, examines and debunks four myths and stereotypes prevalent in the field and looks at how they started; the results, again, are unsurprising: two thirds of children aged nine to eleven draw a man when asked to draw a scientist, while girls in year four are less confident in their maths abilities than boys.

According to the report, this belief that there is an innate gap in ability has broad ramifications, as maths is a gateway subject for science. This belief and resulting difference in societal expectations for male and female students can then develop into a different experience of teaching and learning, further exacerbating the problem.

This goes beyond the classroom to the home, with a survey of parents in 10 OECD countries finding that they were more likely to expect their sons to work in a STEM field than their daughters.

The second myth busted by the report is that most women are not interested in a career in engineering, physics, or ICT.

With 40 percent of engineers in China women and women making up 44 percent of engineering graduates in Malaysia, however, the report finds that a more actively inclusive and welcoming culture in male-dominated STEM fields would be effective in boosting female participation in Australia and other Western countries.

Also examined by the report was the myth that the gender pay gap doesn’t exist. In fact, the national gender pay gap currently sits at 16.2 percent, rising to 23.5 percent in the professional, scientific, and technical services.

In terms of STEM graduates in the highest income bracket, 32 percent of men earn above $104,000, compared to just 12 percent of women. According to the report, fewer female STEM graduates earn in this top bracket regardless of age or level of education.

The fourth myth busted by the report was the idea that the battle against sexism in science has been won, with the report highlighting a US study that found almost 35 percent of women working in science had reported sexual harassment.

This number rises for scientists conducting fieldwork, with 64 percent of researchers surveyed internationally having experienced sexual harassment, mostly at the hands of a senior researcher.

Again, none of this will be news to women, but the report adds another voice to what has become a loud conversation over the past 12 months as more tech companies divulge their diversity statistics with the promise to do better and initiatives to boost the number of women in tech and further support them keep growing.

If Australia is to become an innovation nation, the STEM sector must embrace women: as the report puts it, tapping into the potential of girls and women is not only about social justice, but the economic growth of Australia.

“Recruiting and retaining a diverse set of minds and approaches is vital to harnessing the nation’s intellectual capital for innovation and competitiveness.”

Image source: masetv.

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