I was privileged to be invited by Health Infrastructure to an event organised in recognition of International women’s day.
The Australian British Chamber of Commerce hosted a breakfast during which there was a panel discussion focusing on STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. The event was inspired by the fact that Australia needs to boost the number of women working in the traditionally ‘blokey’ fields of STEM, which in turn may even help shrink the current gender pay gap.
The panel comprised an impressive team including Prof Michelle Simmons, a Professor in Quantum Physics at UNSW, Dr Lisa Harvey-Smith, an astrophysicist at CSIRO’s Australia Telescope Facility and Daniel Petre, an inspiring, and highly entertaining, entrepreneur who is a Partner at Air Tree Ventures. I was in awe of them all – particularly when hearing from Dr Lisa Harvey-Smith that her team is working on the world’s largest telescope which will be half a kilometre wide and will see so far into space it will help explore the nature, origins and evolution of the universe!
The panel spoke of their own experiences in pursuing a career in science and the barriers experienced by women in particular. There was some highly constructive dialogue and ideas about how to encourage more women into these subjects. Daniel Petre, a father of 3 daughters, believes that it must start in the home where we inspire our daughters with these subjects and don’t send them to Dad for help with the maths or science homework – thereby enforcing the view that men are better than women at this stuff.
Schools have their part to play and Australia might look at initiatives being pursued in The US and UK where there is a focus on getting more and better teachers in these subjects into schools. Kids too need to understand that by studying a science subject at university it doesn’t mean that their vocational options are limited to them just becoming a scientist, but that there is a huge wealth of opportunities out there for students who have learnt to problem solve in a way that these subjects require.
Daniel Petre pointed out that there is still a large proportion of students lining up to be bankers and lawyers (he didn’t even try to hide his disdain for both professions!) and worryingly few wanting to pursue STEM subjects. Yet it is the latter that will equip students to work in the new workplace that is emerging, where artificial intelligence will replace elements of traditional roles. Constructive comments were made around students taking double degrees combining commerce, law or arts subjects with a science or technology subject.
Prof Michelle Simmons made the point that in her research teams it is proven that where there is the presence of women they obtain the diversity of thought and achieve better results.
The discussion explored not only the concern around lack of women in science and technology professions, but lack of women in management leadership and boards generally. As was pointed out, there are virtually equal numbers of women graduating with degrees but often no more than 20% or women in leadership and on boards – and Daniel made the point that women don’t become less intelligent as they get older so why is this happening? Quotas for women was addressed and whilst no woman wants to feel that she is in a position due to a quota requirement, such initiatives have their place if the talent is there and quotas are used to widen the choice of candidates.
There were so many more interesting and inspiring points made – too many for this article. Health Infrastructure chose to attend this breakfast because it is serious about women in their organisation, wants to do more in this area and has a number of great initiatives already underway.