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'We must better sell STEM to girls'

03:26pm January 22 2019

Emma Johnston and Anastasia Cammaroto on addressing STEM gender imbalance. (Josh Wall)

Australia’s major institutions need to prioritise increasing the profile of female Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics leaders to encourage more young women to attain skills for roles that are growing in demand and have relatively high salaries, according to UNSW Dean of Science Emma Johnston.

With estimates women make up less than a third of technology-related employment, Ms Johnston said one of many things the nation needed to do to get more women into STEM was portray the diversity of people already involved in the sector. She added that three quarters of the fastest growing industries require STEM training “of some sort”.

“When you hear science being talked about in the mainstream media it's only one in five times that you'll hear a female voice. So really increasing the profile of the women who are already there would help provide role models for the next generation,” she said.

“(And) if you don’t get that training, you’re going to be missing out on the best, highest paying jobs.”

Following Westpac’s recent rollout of a new STEM work experience program for high school girls, the bank’s general manager, business integration, Anastasia Cammaroto said it was frustrating women made up only 28 per cent of the tech industry in Australia.

“We need more people to be working in this industry and a large percentage of our population is opting not to participate or them being made to feel they don’t belong here,” she said.

Late last year, Westpac’s “All SySTEMs Go!” STEM girls work experience program kicked into gear, giving 100 female high school students the opportunity to gain valuable STEM and business-related work experience. Ms Cammaroto said rather than go and talk about what working in technology was like, the bank decided to bring girls in to show them first-hand in the hope of breaking down some of the “stereotypes and myths”.

“Technology isn’t just about coding and … cybersecurity,” she said.

It comes as rapid developments in technology and shifts in the global economy spur governments, corporates and academics to find ways to adapt. In comments following a November speech, Reserve Bank of Australia Governor Philip Lowe said economic growth in the next 20 years would be driven by businesses finding “better ways of doing things”, in contrast to the previous prosperous decades driven by “what’s on our land and what’s under our land”.

“If we’re going to enjoy really high living standards it’s because of what’s in our brains, so we’ve got to find a way of kind of developing ideas and commercialising them in a way that we have not done. I think our future success depends on us doing that,” he said, noting that innovation was however also causing uncertainty that technology would replace some jobs. “We’ve got to find a way of keeping the ideas generation, innovation going and giving people confidence that can co-exist with improving living standards.”

Ms Johnston, a leading authority in marine ecology, said her advice for young women was to “really go for it because you want to do it”, reflecting on how she participated in a marine research project in Antarctica despite initial doubts about diving under ice.

“My second thought was I really want to do it and it's that passion that desire to actually be engaged in science and technology that will keep you going,” she said. “So if you hold onto that passion all of the obstacles all of the confidence issues all of the hard work that needs to be done to get there you'll be able to do it.”

Josh Wall is the Head of Video at Westpac Wire. Prior to joining the team, he spent 10 years as a video journalist and documentary filmmaker, most recently as Head of Video for the Guardian Australia. He also worked across numerous News Corp mastheads in Sydney as a presenter, producer, writer and video journalist. Josh is originally from Perth, Western Australia where he began his career by co-creating a video magazine that focused on music and the arts.

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