What if rates of women in STEM don't improve

The idea of a ‘double bottom line’ is so tidy it sometimes seems unrealistic. But the future of women’s participation in STEM presents an example of where what’s good for business is also in the best interest of the social good. This blog post explores the social implications of women’s under-representation in STEM in Australia and how employers can be part of the solution.

It’s commonly believed that technological disruption, automation and digitization will significantly change the nature of future work. In this anticipated future it’s predicted that workers with advanced technical, math and science skills will be in demand. In this bifurcated workforce those who have technical skills will be rewarded by the labour market. Those who do not, may find themselves part of an increasingly precarious ‘low-skilled’ workforce.

In research on automation published in 2017 McKinsey, for example, find that at least 30 per cent of the activities carried out in 60 per cent of today’s occupations have capacity to be automated given currently demonstrated technology. McKinsey Report author, James Manyika suggests that, as a result:

‘Highly skilled workers working with technology will benefit. [However] While low-skilled workers working with technology will be able to achieve more in terms of output and productivity, these workers may experience wage pressure, given the potentially larger supply of similarly low-skilled workers, unless demand for the occupation grows more than the expansion in labor [sic] supply.’

The Australian Government has been responding to these changes to the labour market with a significant National Innovation and Science Agenda. One aspect of that agenda is to address women’s participation rates. Women are under-represented in STEM and ICT, making up only a quarter of jobs, something that Rapid Context’s Emma Wensing has previously discussed. In itself, this is not surprising, given that occupational segregation has persisted across the Australian labour market for the last 20 years.

While it is the case that there is an effort to improve women’s participation rates in STEM, both by government, and by employers, much of the discussion on women in STEM focuses on the benefits that improvements will bring to industry and the economy. The McKinsey report, mentioned above, notes that if all countries were able to match the performance of the best performing country in improving the current gender gap in labour force participation, $12 trillion additional dollars of GDP would be realised in 2025.

The US Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) has described the shortage of STEM workers as ‘the defining workforce challenge in U.S. aerospace and defence.’ The lack of needed skills in these industries involves significant opportunity and real costs for STEM businesses. The AIA cite figures that estimate costs of ‘$3,000 per existing employee and up to $14,000 per open position’. Women are increasingly considered an important resource in bridging existing skills gaps in a range of industries reliant on STEM. A 2014 STEM Employer Survey by Deloitte for the Office of Australia’s Chief Scientist reported that:

The lack of female applicants was a concern identified by a number of participants, many of who pointed to clear benefits in employing a combination of male and female employees, as well as a number who noted specific and targeted strategies aimed at increasing the gender balance within certain areas of the organisation.

More broadly, there were some suggestions that many of the STEM shortages experienced by various industry sectors could be reduced through attracting capable females to complete STEM qualifications and encouraging them to work in STEM-specific occupations, rather than those more tangentially related to STEM, such as teaching.

However, as well as these economic arguments for increasing women’s participation in STEM, it is worth reflecting on the potential social impacts if current efforts do not lead to improvements. As noted above, high rates of occupational segregation are not new in Australia. Women, are typically over-represented in part-time work, whereas men tend to be over-represented in areas of the labour market where working full-time and longer hours are the norm. The prospect of a deepening of this workforce participation rift is as much a social concern as an economic one as it has the potential to contribute to a feminization of the causes of inequality. That is not to suggest that rates of poverty for women will necessarily increase in a future workforce dominated by STEM. Rather, it highlights the gendered nature of labour market advantages and disadvantages in a context where STEM skills are a key determinant of labour market position and where women are underrepresented as among those with STEM skills.

There is, therefore, a benefit to society as well as the economy in increasing women’s participation in STEM industries. In order to realise these benefits, we need to recognise women as diverse and ensure that efforts to engage women in studying STEM and retaining women working in STEM industries doesn’t happen through single means in a simplistic way. To really achieve diversity in STEM industries we need to attract and retain a diversity of women – that means being inclusive of women from different socio-economic backgrounds, women from different cultures, women with disability, and lesbian, bisexual and transgender women. It might also mean, making working part-time a more socially acceptable option for men. Fundamentally, what this might require is a rethink of long hours as a marker of workplace commitment and performance and deeper reflection on why many industries and workplaces that are at the cutting edge of technological transformation still appear tied to conventional patterns of work.

Dr Angie Bletsas is a senior consultant with Rapid Context. She has expertise in critical analysis, academic and applied research project design and management. Specialist expertise in social policy.

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