Women’s Policy Action Tank: Promoting girls’ and women’s participation in STEM education and careers

Women’s Policy Action Tank: Promoting girls’ and women’s participation in STEM education and careers

Despite girls’ higher academic performance compared to boys – including science and math subjects – there is a “leaky pipeline” when it comes to keeping women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers. Today’s policy analysis provides a comprehensive break-down of the policy statements from the Coalition, Labor, and the Greens parties regarding keeping girls and women in STEM. 


Scorecard on Women and Policy provided by Peter Ninnes, Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand

Topic:  Federal Women’s, Education and Employment policies

Sub-topic:  Women in STEM

Introduction: Current state of women in STEM

The three major political parties in Australia all have policies to promote Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education and careers. The purpose of this paper is to undertake a gender analysis of these policies, based on Kelly Roberts’ recent international study of effective measures to engage more women and girls in STEM fields.   In her report for the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute, Roberts has drawn together a range of recent data on girls’ participation in STEM at secondary school and university and employment in STEM related jobs.

At the secondary school level, a greater proportion of males than females studied:

·         A STEM subject in their final year (18.6% of males vs 13.8% of females) (2011)

·         Studied a mathematics subject in Year 12 (85% of males vs 76% of females) (2011)

·         Studied an advanced mathematics subject in Year 12 (12.6% of males and 6.6% of females) (2011)

·         Studied an intermediate level mathematics subject in Year 12 (20.6% of males vs 17.5% of females) (2011)

At the tertiary level, a greater proportion of males than females:

·         Accepted university engineering places (14% per cent of accepted places went to females) (2012)

·         Were awarded type A degrees or advanced research degrees in STEM (39% of such awards went to females), engineering, manufacturing and construction (25% of such awards went to women) and computing (20% of such awards went to women) (2011)

In the workplace:

·         Of all the people who are STEM qualified and employed, 28 per cent are female (2011)

·         Of all the people who are information technology-qualified and employed, 25 per cent are female (2011)

·         Of all the people who are engineering-qualified and employed, 14 per cent are female (2011)

In addition to participation in STEM education, there are also concerns about the high rates at which Australian women leave STEM at the secondary, tertiary and early career levels (p. 21).


Measures to Enhance STEM Participation and Representation

Roberts identifies six types of measures which are most effective when combined in a consistent and coherent effort, which are used in this analysis as the standard. These measures are:

1.       Government led measures.[1]

2.       Financial Incentives.[2]

3.       Direct Support Programs.[3]

4.       Community Development.[4]

5.       School Based Measures.[5]

6.       Industry or Employer Led Measures.[6]

The following sections analyse the major parties’ STEM education policies. In particular, it categorises the policy initiatives on the basis of the six measures above, and the extent to which the policy represents a comprehensive approach that combines all of these six elements.  We start with the sitting government.

The Liberal National Coalition

1.       Government led measures. The Coalition’s “Commitment to Supporting Australian Women” media release states that the government “has committed to a target of 50% representation of women on Australian Government Boards.” The Coalition government is currently supporting the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) project (through the Australian Academy of Science), which aims to promote gender equity and gender diversity in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM). Pilot institutions collect, analyse and present data on gender equity policies and practices in STEMM departments, and identify gaps and opportunities for improvement.

2.       Financial incentives. In its “Commitment to Supporting Australian Women” the Coalition states it is making a “targeted investment of $13 million to encourage women to choose and stay in STEM fields, start-ups and entrepreneurial businesses”. However, it is not clear whether those funds will be used for other STEM initiatives outlined elsewhere, or are additional funding. Currently the government’s Australian Research Council provides one scholarship to support a female researcher in science and technology.

3.       Direct support programs. The Coalition’s “National Innovation and Science Agenda” (NISA) describes the introduction of a “Curious Minds” STEM extension learning and mentoring program for 54 girls. The four-day program involves learning STEM subjects, and receiving mentoring from women in science and young innovators (p.12). This is a worthwhile intervention, although the number of girls involved is small, and the selection process is not clarified, except to say that the participants will be from “diverse backgrounds”. Furthermore, it doesn’t contribute by itself to changing the gendered nature of STEM participation and achievement in regular schools. The NISA also says that the Coalition “will celebrate female STEM role models”, without saying how (p.13).

4.       Community development. There are no indications of initiatives in the Coalition’s policies to access community members’ views about the nature of the STEM disciplines and the place of girls and women in them. One measure designed to promote STEM literacy (see below) argues that supporting National Science Week is part of “backing science in our communities”, but the aim is “to inspire STEM curiosity and knowledge in young people”, rather than changing community attitudes (NISA, p. 13). Furthermore, the policy assumes that “young people” are not interested in STEM subjects. An alternative possibility is that “young people” are alienated by outmoded or uninteresting STEM curriculum content or teaching methods. The initiative to promote better mathematics pedagogy (see point 5 below) may address part of this issue.

5.       School based measures. The Coalition’s “Restoring the focus on STEM in schools initiative” promises to provide innovative mathematics curriculum resources for primary and secondary school students, focusing on “inquiry-led teaching”, supporting the introduction of classes in computer coding, and deploying “an innovative approach” to technology education based on a model from the US – the P-Tech style school.  The Coalition’s NISA document also promotes the reform of science and mathematics curriculum, and giving priority to primary school teacher trainees who specialise in a STEM subject (NISA, p. 5). None of these approaches has a specific gender approach, and as such, risk increasing interest and participation in STEM without tackling the gender imbalances. The initiative also promises “summer schools for STEM students, to increase the number of girls and disadvantaged students attending”. This ‘solution’ for girls and disadvantaged students results in added time and work for them to compensate for attending school where little is done to address the gendered nature of STEM participation and achievement. Furthermore, “participants in the Summer schools for STEM students are selected predominantly through the existing [mathematics, informatics and science] Olympiad activities and competitions”. However, there is no indication of how girls’ and disadvantaged students’ participation in these activities will be increased. Thus the pool of students selected for the Summer schools is likely to reflect the gender imbalance of STEM subjects, rather than increase the participation of girls and disadvantaged students. Finally the NISA document aims to promote STEM literacy through a number of other activities through competitions and prizes, inquiry and play-based learning apps focused on STEM concepts for pre-schoolers, and supporting events that “inspire STEM curiosity and knowledge in young people” (NISA, p. 13).

6.       Industry of Employer Led Measures. The NISA document mentions their ongoing support of the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) pilot, which aims to “build programmes and networks that support workplace gender equity” (p. 13). More than half of Australia’s universities and a number of research institutes are participating in the pilot. However, the NISA does not commit to rolling out the SAGE program across the remaining institutions.

The Coalition - shortcomings

The Coalition has some key initiatives to improve the participation and achievement of women and girls in STEM, including supporting the SAGE project. The direct support and school-based programs are potentially worthwhile, but overall the Coalition’s approach has a number of areas that need improvement:

1.       Embed gender equity more deeply in government operations, by reporting the impact of the budget and all legislation on women and girls.

2.       Provide opportunities for substantially larger numbers of girls to participate in direct support programs such as summer schools and the “Curious Minds” initiative, or, better still, incorporate these kinds of programs and activities (e.g., working with female mentors) in the regular school STEM curricula, so that all students can benefit.

3.       Ensure that efforts to increase STEM participation at school and university focus on increasing participation of girls, to avoid reproducing gender inequalities.

4.       Undertake initiatives to address negative community and education institution-based attitudes to girls’ and women’s participation in STEM.

The Australian Labour Party

1.       Government led measures. The ALP’s policy document on women expresses the intention of greater gender equity in the public and private sector by aiming for 50 per cent representation of women on all Australian Government boards, and by raising the proportion of women on boards of the ASX100 companies (p. 4). The ALP also plans to roll out the use of anonymous CVs when recruiting new graduates and entry-level staff in all government departments, to improve child care, and to improve flexibility in the Australian Public Service (pp. 7, 17). If these initiatives include government research organisations, they will be an important step forward in supporting the recruitment of women. The ALP also intends to establish Women’s Advisory Committees and Diversity Units in all government departments, re-establish the annual Women’s Budget Statement, and accompany each piece of government legislation with an Impact Statement for Women (pp. 4, 6).

2.       Financial incentive. The ALP education policy proposes the provision of 25,000 “Teach Stem scholarships” comprising $5,000 when students commence a teaching degree and $10,000 when they complete their first year of teaching. Although there is no mention of using these scholarships to address gender imbalances, the ALP intends to offer half of its 100,000 STEM award degrees over five years to females. In this latter program, the student’s entire HECS-HELP debt will be written off on graduation (Women’s Policy document, p. 19).

3.       Direct support programs. The ALP intends to find ways for universities to work with schools and TAFEs to target students in their last two years of schooling to undertake STEM study at university, with an emphasis on underrepresented groups including women (p. 20).

4.       Community development. The ALP Women’s policy seeks to improve community attitudes to women by ensuring teachers have the tools to help children develop respectful relationships and to address the issue of gendered violence (p. 19). Although the policy does not specifically mention STEM at this point, such a program would contribute to the reduction of gendered attitudes in schools, and potentially promote the participation and achievement of girls in traditionally male-dominated subjects. However, the policy could be improved vis-à-vis STEM and gender if this aspect was specifically mentioned.

5.       School based measures. The ALP education policy proposes a number of measures to improve the quality of STEM teaching and learning. These include ensuring secondary STEM teachers are qualified in their STEM area, funding for 25,000 teachers to undertake STEM professional development, giving every child the chance to learn coding, and inspiring more students to study science and mathematics.  In the case of coding, the ALP proposes a Girls into Code program, to mentor and support girls learning computer code (Women’s Policy document, p. 20).

6.       Industry or employer led measures. The ALP policy promotes gender pay equity in general (p. 22), and as noted above, aims to encourage greater representation of women on the boards of the ASX100 companies. However, it has relatively little else to say about incentives for employers and industry in general or in STEM in particular to implement initiatives which encourage women to enter and stay in STEM careers.

ALP - shortcomings

The ALP policies are particularly strong in the areas of Government led initiatives, improving community attitudes, and providing financial incentives for girls and women to study in STEM areas. Aspects where the ALPs approach could be improved include:

1.       Provide more incentives for STEM organisations in the private sector to improve gender equity through initiatives such as industry funded scholarships, linking prominent STEM researchers with schools, flexible work practices, mentoring programs, and gender sensitive recruitment policies.

2.       Ensuring that at least 50 per cent female representation among the 25,000 teachers undertaking STEM professional development.

3.       Specifying the initiatives and funding to “inspire more students to study science and mathematics.”

The Australian Greens

1.       Government led measures. The Australian Greens’ policy on women enunciates principles of gender equality in all areas of society, in families and for individuals. It promotes the right to equal pay, freedom from discrimination, and women’s right to make informed choices about all aspects of their lives. It promotes long term social and cultural change to end women’s systemic disadvantage. Based on these principles, the policy advances 29 related aims. One of these is “specific initiatives in schools, vocational education and universities that increase women’s participation and success in traditionally male-dominated careers.” Specific initiatives in the field of education are outlined in other policy documents (see below) but no specific strategies are suggested for promoting women in the work of government more generally such as the use of quotas and targets for women’s membership on expert scientific groups or scientific committees, or in terms of research funding allocations or actions to increase the numbers of women in senior positions in government.

2.       Financial Incentives. The Australian Greens’ “Innovation Nation: The Bridge to the New Economy” commits funds for “incentives for high school students to study STEM courses at university” and startup hubs and scholarships in universities for final-year students and recent graduates. It also argues that “by introducing children to STEM and entrepreneurial skills from the start of their schooling, and nurturing their understanding and engagement with these skills throughout their education, we can ensure greater numbers and gender balance in STEM and entrepreneurial jobs in the future.” This approach is based on the false assumption that providing more opportunities for everyone will provide more opportunities for and participation by girls and women. This suggests that the Greens have not understood the nature of barriers to participation in STEM both in school and in the workplace (see for example, point 4 below).   

3.       Direct Support Programs. The Australian Greens’ “Securing our Future through Research and Development” policy has an entire section on “Supporting Women in Science & Research” (p. 5). The policy commits $50m to “research and innovation organisations to help them develop strategic programs designed to retain female workers and carers as they manage competing demands on their time”. The measures suggested include part-time fellowships, childcare support, family friendly facilities, and increased technical support during maternity leave. However, the policy does nothing to address the inequitable distribution of child care and other domestic responsibilities within parental relationships. Such inequities substantially contribute to the “competing demands” on women’s time.

4.       Community Development. Although the Australian Greens’ “Women” policy aims to have “the principles of gender equity taught in schools,” there are no proposals to address gender bias among science educators or career counsellors, or address negative community views about girls and women studying and working in STEM fields.

5.       School Based Measures. As noted above, the “Women” policy aims to have specific school initiatives to improve participation and success in traditionally male dominated careers, and these are specified in other policy documents. The Australian Green’s “Education” policy has as one of its aims (no. 25) “A secular public education system free from religious proselytising and materials that discriminate on the basis of race, sexuality or gender.” However, it makes no specific reference to STEM. The policy also has a number of other aims addressing issues of educational disadvantage and educational pathways, but none of these specifically mention gender.  The Australian Greens’ “Innovation Nation: The Bridge to the New Economy” document is more specific. It promotes STEM professional development for primary teachers and curriculum development for schools and universities. However, because this approach does not have a gender focus, it could simply expand interest and enrolment in STEM subjects among students without addressing the gender imbalance in STEM subject participation or the issues indicated in point 4 above. 

6.       Industry or Employer Led Measures. The Australian Greens’ “Securing our Future through Research and Development” policy also proposes using part of the $50m mentioned above to help organisations review their operations to identify institutional and cultural barriers to retaining women employees and creating a more equitable and diverse workplace. The policy also proposes working with the research community to develop “career pathways that accommodate women and carers as they manage their work-life balance” (p.5). As noted in point 3 above, the policy also has to address the causes of women’s difficulty in managing their work-life balance, which in many cases includes the inequitable distribution of domestic tasks.  


Australian Greens - shortcomings

The Australian Greens’ policies address to some extent all of the six domains identified by Kelly (2014). It would be strengthened by:

1.       Making specific efforts to increase women’s participation in scientific leadership positions in government, on expert scientific bodies and committees, and in research.

2.       Ensure that efforts to increase STEM participation at school and university focus on increasing participation of girls, to avoid reproducing gender inequalities.

3.       Undertake initiatives to address negative community and education institution-based attitudes to girls’ and women’s participation in STEM, and encourage a more equitable distribution of household tasks among parents and carers.



[1] Government led initiatives include development of national gender policy; the enactment of anti-discrimination legislation; removal of discrimination; use of quotas and targets, for example, on expert groups and scientific committees, and in terms of funding allocations and women in senior positions; empowering key government agencies, such as to consistently collect high quality gender-disaggregated data; and recruiting the assistance of professional bodies and associations.

[2] Financial incentives include scholarships or fellowships for female students to study and research in STEM fields and to establish their careers.

[3] Direct support programs include mentoring programs, unbiased careers and counselling services, identification and promotion of role models, and programs that support women’s and girls’ access to STEM courses.

[4] Community development means influencing community members’ views about the nature of the STEM disciplines and the place of women and girls in them.

[5] School based measures include: teachers’ professional development to improve the teaching of STEM subjects in general, including greater use of real-life science activities and experiences; promotion of STEM to girls; and developing gender-sensitive curricula and pedagogy.

[6] Industry or employer led measures include industry-funded scholarship programs for girls, scientific industry events at educational institutions, flexible work practices, gender pay equity, mentoring programs, child-care facilities, management gender awareness training, and gender-sensitive recruitment policies.

This analysis is a contribution to the Scorecard on Women and Policy project, initiated by the Women's Policy Action Tank.  We invite policy specialists in all areas to provide analysis of public policy using a gender lens:  womenspolicy@goodshep.org.au  Follow us on Twitter: @PolicyforWomen