A leading Australian tech exec says women working in STEM is a bigger problem than many are letting on.
Kim Wenn has extensive experience managing and leading technology businesses, including a five-year career with Quest Software prior to joining Tabcorp 12 years ago, where she is now the chief information officer.
She says the key to improving the participation rate of women in STEM roles is recognising what’s holding them back.
“Some of my core concerns with the next generation of women in STEM are the barriers and challenges they have to entering higher study or the STEM workforce,” she says.
Tabcorp recently commissioned a study involving more than 1,000 Australians between 20 and 35, aimed to uncover the perceptions that hold Australians back from STEM, and the role of business in encouraging female participation in the field.
The majority (60%) of respondents said they considered “not being clever enough”, or “don’t know enough about career pathways” as the top two barriers to a career in STEM.
Of those participants, women are more likely than men to say the barriers for them considering a career in STEM are that they are not clever enough (46% compared to 36%) and that the culture in STEM is still a boys’ club and makes them uncomfortable (20% compared to 6%).
“How disheartening that many bright minds may be bypassing an amazing career in an area that has huge future potential because they don’t have enough self-belief,” she said.
“‘Impostor syndrome’, that feeling that some high achievers get that they are not as qualified or knowledgeable as people assume and that they will be exposed at any second, is something I have read a lot about, and I think that this research highlights a similar lack of confidence that the female population has about entry into STEM.
“Disappointingly, this lack of confidence or feeling of being an impostor could be one of the main reasons that girls are steering away from a STEM pathway despite having a variety of abilities that could benefit them in STEM. For example, 52% of women in the study said they were creative (compared to 38% of men), which is a perfect trait in the innovation and discovery channels of STEM.”
Wenn says it’s important that parents, businesses, educators, the government and all STEM industries work together to remove “stigmas and stereotypes” around STEM.
“The new research shows that the clear barrier of entry into STEM for women is a lack of confidence and an ongoing perception gap of gender bias: the majority of respondents in the study list their perceived level of intelligence and lack of clarity around career pathways as the top two barriers to considering a career in STEM,” she says.
“This barrier is one that can be broken down through continued conversation in the media, through education and, from my perspective, through females already in STEM being role models and making themselves visible and available as mentors for the next generation of women making decisions about their careers.
“Role models can have a really positive and strong influence over decision making at any age, and clearly there is a need for more females in STEM to step up to that plate!”
And she says it’s not an issue exclusive to Australia.
“This is very much a global issue that many countries are being challenged by,” she says.
“The numbers of women in STEM in Australia are slowly shifting and we should be proud of that. However, it needs to happen quicker!
“My advice to anyone considering a career in STEM who is somewhat unsure about their ability is to talk to people you know, find out as much as you can, and read and read and read. There’s a myriad of pathways that could lead you there – it doesn’t have to be a straight line.”
Tabcorp – an ASX100 business employing more 750 STEM professionals – is recognised as one of Australia’s leading supporters of gender diversity after being named an Employer of Choice for Gender Equality by the federal government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency, for the second consecutive year.