The findings of a new survey of professional women in science and engineering by APESMA that they have experienced a high rate of gender-based discrimination, harassment and continuing pay inequity in their fields in Australia is very sobering but it is hardly news.
This negative experience is well documented in previous studies and partly accounts for the continuing low rate of female retention and career progression to senior positions of the many successful female graduates recruited each year by industry and research organisations in Australia. This lack of growth in women's participation and advancement since 1995 is mapped closely by Sharon Bell in her 2009 report, 'Women in Science' for the Federation of Australian Science and Technology Societies (FASTS).
Many innovative educational initiatives and interventions have been taken to promote engineering and science as choices of study and career to young people and especially to young women, and these are being strengthened now to grow skilled technology capacity and to extend the lifelong benefits of such choices to students of a lower socio-economic background.
This survey of 1100 female members of the Australian Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers is a reminder that any bid to diversify and grow the workforce in these fields so as to stimulate research and development and the knowledge economy, has to be systemic in its design. It has to prioritise reform and innovation with respect to workplace conditions and access to flexibility; workplace cultures and discrimination; and, career development and pay equity.
To better attract, engage and retain students in engineering, a leading engineering educator, Robyn King, recommended in his 2008 report for the Australian Council of Engineering Deans 'Engineers for the Future', that universities work to diversify their academic faculty by attracting women from the engineering workforce to take up a research and academic career. As appealing as this idea may be, the survey is a reminder that that workforce cohort is small and unstable.
It's no mystery any longer why most young women choose against remunerative and challenging fields of study and career, where they could stretch their analytical skills and collaborate to make change and reinvent the world. The internet and the speed that bad news travels mean that they are aware they have to make a cost-benefit judgement, and more often this induces them to choose law and finance or medicine or the traditionally female-friendly but low paid professions of teaching and nursing.
A serious strategy to systemically redress the failure to properly value and sustain the talents and achievement potential of women needs to be central to all efforts to grow the skilled workforce and research capability nationally. Investment on this front would be easy to justify by the wealth of evidence that we are squandering talent whilst cheating women of a lifelong economic return on the commitment they make in early life to study, success and qualifications.
September 4 was national Equal Pay Day – it marks the date by which an Australian woman would have had to have worked from June 30 this year to have earnt the same as her male counterpart had earnt by the end of June. The Gender Pay Equity Gap is increasing and currently stands at 18%.