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Greater support needed for women pursuing careers in STEM, study finds

Media release

Women working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields are facing barriers that require attitude changes and additional support – such as scholarships and tax breaks – in order for Australia to truly benefit from more women in the sector, new research led by the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre has found.

Woman working in Science field - Innovative technologies in science and medicine .

The research, published in the Australian Journal of Labour Economics, analysed data from the Australian Census and the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey to determine the outcomes for women who obtain STEM qualifications at university.

It found women who had gained STEM qualifications experienced lower labour participation rates, higher unemployment rates and poorer job satisfaction compared to women with other tertiary qualifications.

Lead author Associate Professor Michael Dockery, from the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre, said it was widely accepted that Australia needs more women studying STEM-related subjects at school, adding that women made up less than 30 per cent of Australians with STEM qualifications.

“Women entering the STEM workforce face substantial challenges in their careers, and once they are in the workplace, factors such as pay, progression and job security continue to be barriers for women trying to reach higher levels in their professions,” Associate Professor Dockery said.

“Our results indicate that women with STEM qualifications are less likely to participate in the labour market and are generally less satisfied with their employment opportunities, compared to other female graduates. Among those who are employed, women with STEM qualifications feel that their skills and abilities are not as well utilised in their jobs as some of their counterparts.

“Comparing data from the 2006 and 2016 Australian Census, there has been a slight increase in the number of women obtaining STEM qualifications at university, increasing from 27.6 per cent to 29.7 per cent. Our findings also suggest that women with STEM qualifications earn similar hourly wages as women with non-STEM qualifications, but they face a substantially higher gender wage gap when compared to their male counterparts with STEM qualifications.”

The research also found that women with IT qualifications faced higher unemployment rates than their male counterparts and experienced poorer job satisfaction, while those with natural and physical science qualifications earned lower wages and were more likely to drop out of the labour force compared to women with other university qualifications.

Associate Professor Dockery explained that the results provided further evidence that policies to promote female participation in STEM must be accompanied by measures addressing the career barriers women face.

“Our findings suggest that a concerted effort needs to be made to ensure that the increasing numbers of women being encouraged into STEM fields can succeed. Positive action to change attitudes and behaviours, particularly in traditionally male-dominated sectors, would be beneficial to improving this outlook for women working in the STEM fields,” Associate Professor Dockery said.

“It may also be beneficial to provide compensatory measures, such as scholarships or tax breaks under the Higher Education Contribution Scheme, to support women who choose to pursue a career in STEM.”

The paper was co-authored by Dr Sherry Bawa from the School of Economics, Finance and Property at Curtin University.

The paper titled, ‘Labour market implications of promoting women’s participation in STEM in Australia,’ can be found online here.