“Why is the number of women in Australia who are choosing STEM careers falling?" It’s a common question and one that the tech industry doesn’t seem to be able to answer too well.
Lucy Lloyd, co-founder and CEO at startup, Mentorloop and a speaker at this year’s Women in Tech event in Sydney offered up a few reasons. Lloyd suspects it’s a combination of ‘imposter syndrome’ or feeling like a fraud, cognitive bias in the hiring process, and dropping out of the pipeline early through lack of interest in STEM.
“One of my girlfriends who trained as an engineer is training at the moment as a nurse because she wants to spend more time with her kids and have a more flexible career,” Lloyd told the audience on Wednesday.
“I wonder if there’s a flexibility component to that and those kinds of jobs are requiring as they do potentially long hours, they’re still quite old school organisations that aren’t making space for women to feel like they are completely welcome,” Lloyd said.
Indeed, a mere 16 per cent of STEM-qualified people are women, according to a March 2016 report by the Australian Government’s Office of the Chief Scientist.
Further, only 12 per cent of STEM graduates earning in the top income bracket ($104,000 or above) are women, compared to 32 per cent men.
An audience member at the event offered a different opinion, arguing that the question of why the number of women studying STEM subjects is falling is actually being framed incorrectly.
“Women aren’t falling out [of STEM], I think that men are failing to keep up with the way the world is going,” she said to cheers from the audience. “There’s nothing wrong with women; I think the choices they make and the quality of life they want, they expect a higher standard that is currently provided in organisations,” she said.
She argued that for organisations to be disruptive and successful, they need ‘cultural productivity.’ This comes from addressing the human aspects [of the work environment], she said.
“I don’t think women are falling off, they are just making better choices.”
Glass ceiling remains
Regardless of their choices, women are still coming up against a ‘glass ceiling’, according to a panel at the Women in Tech conference. Beth Patterson, chief legal and technology officer at law firm, Allens; Julie Chivers, head of global IT capability at Lendlease; and Angela Goodsir, chief technology and systems officer at Multi Channel Network all agreed that it still exists.
Lend Lease’s Chivers said that the women she works with tend to undersell themselves in “pretty much every circumstance.”
“I think it’s an Australian cultural thing as well,” she said. “I grew up being able to self-promote, and the Australian women that I was mentoring, maybe they didn’t grow up with being told to say how great you are at the time – the tall poppy thing that happens here. You have to get rid of the tall poppy [syndrome] when talking about yourselves.”
Allen’s Patterson suggested women in tech should converse with their marketing colleagues and learn the intricacies of self-promotion.
“Technical people tend to be good at solving complex problems. You think that your value is going to be in solving complex problems but once you arrive at a particular level, your value is actually about influencing people and building relationships combined with these [technical] skills.”
Chivers, who is in her mid-40s, believes that women in their mid-50s and 60s who are running organisations “have one hell of a glass ceiling.” She says that these business leaders weren’t necessarily willing to help women of her generation.
“There were very few of them that were [helpful]. They had to act like men to get there and if we weren’t prepared to do it too, then tough. The ladies in my age group felt that lack of support. But what I am finding now is that there’s a new culture that seems to be developing across senior executive [ranks] where we are all supporting each other,” she says.
“We are also working with the millennials to work out how the heck to fit them into the organisation as well. So that groundswell of support is something you should tap into.”
Follow Byron Connolly on Twitter: @ByronConnolly