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Last week, Progressive Recruitment part of the larger SThree Group, launched the first session of its Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) networking series in Sydney. As a global STEM recruitment specialist with over 30 years of experience, we have seen first-hand the lack of female candidates in the STEM market and the common issues that women working in the industry have to face – namely the misunderstanding of the gender gap in an organisation, slower career progression and having employers struggling to attract female talent. We advocate for better representation of women in STEM and it was therefore great to see the number of men showing support for gender equality at our Women in STEM panel discussion.

Our panel discussion consisted of the following key business leaders who shared their insights and experience working in the STEM industry:

We further set out the questions below that our moderator, Jessica Swann – Client Relationship Manager at SThree discussed during the session.

What are some of the issues that you have faced personally in your career in STEM?

Stephanie Chung: I personally felt at different times in my career the assumption from my male colleagues that I’m either not knowledgeable enough within the technical realm or simply just not as good as them. When I went to round table meetings, people would think that I am the assistant or the person who takes notes. Such unconscious bias permeates within the STEM industry and can be quite inherent and not always visible.

Ruth Santangelo: I had an awkward experience coming back from maternity leave many years ago, at a previous organisation. My manager assumed that I did not want to come back to a role with the same sort of pressure and commitment and instead of reinstating me as a Project Manager, he asked me to be the Project Admin. It felt like a huge step back in my career and I was disturbed and unsatisfied with this outcome. Upon reflection, I decided to take control back on my role. Instead of limiting myself to a project admin, I did my job in the capacity of a Project Manager – just like before I went on maternity leave. A week later my manager had a candid conversation with me and said that he made the wrong assumption and asked me to take over the management of the Project officially. I subsequently got promoted six months later.

Tanya Graham: I’ve had a similar experience when I got back to work the second time I came back from maternity leave. I was constantly overlooked for promotions and I eventually left and moved to an organisation that valued flexibility and was more inclusive towards women.

Grainne Kearns: 10 years ago, I was approached by men in my public arenas who thought I was the secretary when really – I was the leader of the team. When I later on secured CIO roles, there was a lot of agitation from my male peers. There tends to be a lot of unconscious and conscious biases especially nowadays where some people think that the female agenda is being pushed too much, and that is how women get the job. The challenge remains that the STEM market is still a male-dominated industry.

Dave Uchimoto: Throughout my tech career I have not experienced this first-hand, but I have experienced it second-hand. My wife, while working for a software company, was told that despite performing better than male colleagues that she would not be compensated as much because they were men with families to take care of.

The panellists further discussed the increasing difficulty that women have to face in the STEM market. Despite a 20% growth year-on-year in the IT industry, only 2% of women studied IT last year – which is approximately 5,000 people. This calls for a movement to get younger girls more engaged in STEM through an overhaul of the education system such as including STEM activities within mandatory school hours rather than an optional activity after school. The way that jobs and products are advertised can also change that perception. Companies need to take away the unconscious bias towards women and adopt a diversity and inclusion strategy. According to a study conducted by Harvard Business Review, examples of unconscious bias in the workplace are women having to provide more evidence of competence than their male colleagues to prove themselves or being mistaken at work for either the administrative staff.

Dave Uchimoto: Studies have shown that if you remove bias, you will actually hire more females. At The Trade Desk, we constantly work to remove the subconscious part of the recruitment process. For example, we implement a coding exercise without a time constraint for our engineering roles. We recognise that different individuals would need various lengths of time to work on the task outside of work hours.

From a recruitment perspective, we do not see enough female candidates to put forward in STEM roles. How can we help generate their interest from a young age?

Tanya Graham: There is a fundamental issue in the school curriculum which isn’t focused on teaching our children practical life skills. For example, my daughter who is interested in technology participates in a coding club as an after-school activity whereas my son who studies history has his classes within school hours.

However, the government is making a positive contribution to get young girls interested in STEM at a young age. Last week, the government announced the firstAustralian women in STEM ambassador Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith who will work on a national scale to raise awareness of the issues that can hold girls and women back from STEM study and work respectively. The government has allocated $4.5 million in its 2018-19 budget to establish a proper plan to boost STEM in school and introduce STEM kits for girls in order to improve gender equality from a young age.

Is there a lack of understanding on the gender gap?

Grainne Kearns: A recent survey by PwC reported that of those surveyed only 27% of females students would consider a career in technology compared to 61% of men – of which only 3% said they would pick technology as their first choice. Females aren’t considering technology careers as they aren’t given enough information on what working in the sector involves and also because no one is putting it forward as an option to them. A lack of female role models is also reinforcing the perception that a technology career isn’t for them. Only 22% of students can name a famous female working in technology. Whereas two thirds can name a famous man working in technology. Technology organisations need to highlight how technology is a force for good if they want to attract more females to the sector. Half of females say that feeling like the work they do makes the world a better place is the most important factor when deciding their future career.  I also think that women are contributing to this scenario in some instances by having the mindset that they are not fully capable of doing the job and so don’t apply for it.... This is different to males who apply for a job because they want it – they are less concerned about any gaps in their capability. To therefore get women to apply for a job, we need to take that ‘noise’ away. It will take a while for people to fully understand the gender gap.

What is being done in your companies to help bridge the gender gap?

To help bridge the gender gap, all four companies – The Trade Desk, Lion, CBRE and Optus, shared that they offer flexible working arrangements to their employees. In addition, CBRE runs women leadership programs and will be looking to implement pay parity next year.  Optus has a great company-wide Diversity and Inclusion strategy in place with Executive Sponsorship. It focuses on Gender Diversity, LGBTIQ+, Multigenerational Workplace, Multicultural Awareness as well as Differing Abilities. Optus Diversity and Inclusion Strategy has implemented a number of women’s leadership initiatives including building leadership capability through education and programs. Lion has gender diversity targets, ensures equal pay and ensures that its job adverts do not discriminate against female applicants. Lion also offers flexible working, promotes diversity and inclusion, has programs to support mature age workers in planning for the next phase of their life and runs a partnership program offering work opportunities for individuals with intellectual disabilities.

Role models have been said to be a crucial factor. Has any one of you been a sponsor or have a role model whom you look up to?

Grainne Kearns: I am a huge fan of sponsors. Most of my career advances come from an activity with sponsors. My first CIO gig came along when the CEO recognised me and sponsored me. I think as a woman in tech, it is important to support other women including attending events like this and to have role models to look up to. As a woman speaking with and supporting other women we recognise where each other is sitting and have likely had similar experiences and can support each other in how to get your stories heard.

 Dave Uchimoto: It is important to establish trust and develop relationships with your co-workers. In my career, I had the privilege of having mentored two female colleagues and these relationships were great and synergistic. As a sponsor – it is a very rewarding experience and definitely not a one-way relationship. It may seem like extra responsibilities to undertake but in reality, it is very fulfilling to see someone you’ve mentored become successful.

Any tips for women looking to start a career in STEM?

Tanya Graham: If you have the key inspiration but are not getting the right support in your current organisation, then go to another organisation that will recognise the value that you will bring to the role.

Stephanie Chung: Networking is important to maintain. From a practical level, mind map your connections over the course of time and see what relationships you have; then build on these relationships.

How do women in the STEM industry remain resilient where they seemingly have to face more challenges than men?

Ruth Santangelo: You need to have a support network and have a community that combats self-doubt. If you are the only female in the room, rather than feeling awkward – use that as an advantage. Be proud that you’re part of a movement for gender equality in the STEM industry and show the room that progress is due.

Big thank you to those who attended and our co-sponsors

Huge thank you to those who attended our first session of Women in STEM series. We hope you enjoyed it as much as we did. More importantly we would like to extend our appreciation to our panellists and our co-sponsors for the event – The Trade Desk and DLA Piper. It was a privilege to work with all of you for this event and we look forward to the next session. 

Stay tuned for our next session

If you would like to participate in our next session of Women in STEM series, feel free to contact Jessica Swann on 02 8251 2106 or j.swann@huxley.com for a confidential discussion.