What can Lego Masters tell us about STEM’s gender challenge?

Image of female lego character

While playing with Lego might not be a prerequisite for a career in Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics (STEM), it does bring together a range of skillsets such as creativity, problem solving, critical thinking and communication skills which have been identified as desirable traits relevant to, and foundations for, our future workforce.

The recent series - Lego Masters - has been a great showcase of these skills. But as I sat down to watch Finals Week, I felt about as comfortable as if I had to navigate a lounge room floor full of Lego in bare feet. Of the 10 individuals from the teams in the finals, only one was a woman (and her team was eliminated first). What are the consequences of such representation for Australia’s current push to get girls and women into STEM?

To its credit, even while being a commercial endeavour, Lego Masters did seem to make a conscious effort to include women. Overall, 5 of the 16 (31%) participants were women, which is an approximate parity with the wider STEM workforce. It is perhaps unfortunate that so many of the women were eliminated early. I hope that young girls didn’t feel disappointed or alienated because of the lack of representation. Perhaps the season-finale guest judge, Lego Senior Design Manager Fenella Charity (direct from Denmark), provided just enough inspiration for career options in STEM for aspiring women builders.

According to a report into Australia’s STEM workforce by the office of Australia’s Chief Scientist, women represent only 16% of the STEM-qualified population, and less frequently obtain high-paying leadership roles within STEM organisations. Increasing numbers of women in STEM is essential because it is not only ‘right’ but also economically ‘smart’. Having the largest possible pool of talent from which to draw from, including women, makes good business sense: diverse organisations are more innovative and more adaptable to environmental changes. Not to mention, we are going to need a wide pool of potential employees to create and sustain the future sovereign Australian shipbuilding workforce.

Amongst other government initiatives to increase engagement of women and girls with STEM, a key stream of the Women in STEM Decadal Plan is to increase visibility of women in STEM, providing role models for the future workforce. Affinity with STEM needs to start at a young age (to provide young people with options) and interest and habits related to science-based activities can be cultivated early.

Importantly, 2018 saw the appointment of Australia’s first Women in STEM Ambassador. In the last 9 months, Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith has lifted the profile of STEM nationally including through school and community visits around the country. Grassroots engagement is essential to the future of STEM.

As they prepare for season two, I challenge Endemol-Shine Australia to continue to innovate some additional ways they can support Lego’s gender-inclusive appeal and moderate the gender imbalance on the show. I’m sure that some of Science & Technology Australia’s 60 Superstars of STEM would consider being guest judges during the season. Alternatively, some of their achievements could be profiled in setting a challenge for contestants.

However, increasing visibility and pathways for girls and women interested in STEM is only part of the solution to the gender challenge in STEM. Research shows that women in STEM continue to encounter work environments where gender-based stereotypes, harassment and discrimination are present. What is therefore needed, is a focus on equipping employers to support the growing numbers of women entering and having careers in non-traditional fields.

As our recent review for Science & Technology Australia has highlighted, there is a role for STEM professional associations and societies in supporting diversity in the science and technology sector, with many already leading the way.

For other organisations, thinking early, thinking now, about basic workplace gender equality mechanisms, including developing flexible workplaces and recognising the need for culture change in male-dominated industries, is critical to ensure the pipeline of women in STEM will experience workplaces and work cultures that support and truly value the contribution of women.

Through our evidence-based program Rapid Connect, we can help organisations in traditionally male-dominated fields, including many STEM industries, retain skilled and valued women employees. Get in touch at connect@rapidcontext.com.au to find out more.

Emma Wensing is a Senior Consultant at Rapid Context. As a sociologist her expertise is in Women in sport, gender and the military, media analysis, research program development and delivery within the Department of Defence, qualitative methods, quantitative analysis.

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