The importance of STEM to the Future of Work in Australia

[Speech delivered at the Women in Aviation Aerospace summit Canberra 2019]

I believe, our future relies on a STEM fluent citizenry – What I mean by that is, we need people trained and skilled in STEM fields, and people who understand the role that those skills play in our communities and our lives.
But this is easier said than done. We face obstacles all along the pipeline, beginning as early as primary school. There is a domino effect along our nation’s STEM education pipeline. And we know this because the number of young Australians choosing STEM subjects in high schools is actually declining.[1] This poses current (because the future is now!) workforce challenges for higher education and organisations alike.
Why is this so alarming? Why should you care? Because 75% of the fastest growing occupations in our country require STEM skills.[2] STEM jobs rank among the best-paying and fastest-growing jobs in the 21st-century Australian economy, but STEM qualifications are on the decline. We must bridge this discrepancy by addressing the root causes, expanding the STEM education pipeline and equipping more students with skills to seize these opportunities.
The real imperative is that these obstacles in our STEM pipeline will ultimately jeopardise Australia’s future economic competitiveness, leaving a generation of young people behind. How’s this for a statistic! … Just a 1% increase in people (women!) choosing a STEM-related career would result in over 50 billion dollars in revenue for the Australian economy.[3]
Everyone has a part to play to ensure that investments in STEM education remain a priority for our national wellbeing. From Government passing new legislation to expand this pipeline through changes in syllabus, to universities collaborating with organisations to provide meaningful internships, scholarships and real-life experience, to IT employers encouraging diversity hires and providing flexible working arrangements for maximum talent retention. A high-skilled, high-tech, STEM fluent workforce depends on it.
Diversity and gender equity in STEM
A workforce delivering science, technology and innovation must make use of all available talent. However, women are severely underrepresented in STEM. For example, only 16% of STEM qualified professionals in Australia are women.[4] We know that women face barriers at all stages of the pipeline, from early education to participation in the workforce, with particularly pronounced barriers at senior levels.
My own story is evidence of these barriers. Growing up I had my head in the clouds and my nose in a book. I can clearly recall the exact moment when I became disinterested in Science. It was grade 4 and we were dissecting frogs. I felt queasy and wanted to leave. Without hesitation, without trying to encourage me, my teacher said ‘you are not cut out for this’ and marched me out the door where I stood for the next 30 min doing nothing and feeling as though I had done something wrong. This is just one of many times when teachers or other influential figures in my life knowingly or unconsciously led me away from STEM studies.
But teachers have such a hard task don’t they? Especially in this day and age. I remember when I came home from school and TV was the biggest distraction to homework. (Who remembers I dream of Jeannie and Bewitched?!) And if my parents said no TV, eventually all I had left to do was study! These days, between Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, Playstation, X-Box, Netflix and the instant gratification of all those likes and comments, how is good old homework ever to compete? How do we make long arduous mathematical equations or complex coding as enticing as the red heart or blue thumbs up? I know my teachers didn’t succeed! When I got to Year 11 Physics we would still rather pass notes in class than listen to the monotonous deadpan delivery of Faraday’s Law of Electromagnetic Induction. But when the same content was delivered on the TV show Big Bang Theory years later I was riveted. Why had I not pursued this super interesting topic of study? Why didn’t I become an engineer working to improve the design of electromagnetic devices?
Instead I did an Arts in Communication degree at UTS. My parents had no idea what that meant or what career I could pursue as a result – which was a great concern for an ethnic parent! I fell into a work experience role at KPMG that would teach me all the technical skills I needed on the job and for the next decade I learnt from the technology management roles that I did across multiple companies and cities. Now I can proudly say that I am a woman in tech, but it depended on navigating so many complex avenues. Are the girls of today equipped to be women navigating these complexities in the future?
If not for them, then remember that just a 1% increase in people choosing STEM equals a 50 billion dollar injection into our economy. Equity and fairness in the STEM field is not only the right thing to do. It makes business sense as well! And the most empowering thing is that any little action, by anyone, can help with this increase.
STEM at EY
As a management consultant at EY, I have worked across multiple government and private organisations across this wide brown land of ours. One of my favourites has been my time at the Air Force working with Plan Jericho. Plan Jericho identified the need to innovatively inspire and encourage young girls into STEM education to bolster the future aviation workforce. It was amazing to be part of a dedicated team that put together 4 events over 6 months. One of which was the Avalon international air show which Stephen Drury attended and you can see our STEM tent in his YouTube video. These events led to face to face engagement with 50,000 school children and online engagement through social media with many more.
We developed an animated character called Jasper with Animal Logic Animation Studios to inspire these girls because you can’t be what you can’t see. And through Jasper we also found a way to educate young boys on gender and role diversity and acceptance. At the Avalon Airshow we had a male from Industry come in and spend a day promoting women in STEM. His organisation promoted this on social media and tagged him. That evening he got bullied (yes those jokey comments his mates made on Instagram are actually bullying) and he came in the next day and requested his photos be removed. This is the culture we are working to change.
My time at the Air Force was amazing because I spent every day helping build the STEM future of Australia and proving that the STEM space is inclusive of all.
This work resonated with me because as a Woman in Tech there have been many times when I was the only female or only female of colour at meetings, on teams and on projects. Times where my technical knowledge and capability was doubted because of my gender and led to the imposter syndrome developing in me.
And so, the EY STEM initiative came into being. As part of EY’s purpose to build a better working world, we know we have an important role in supporting a STEM fluent citizenry to enable a sustainable future and protect our quality of life for all. We have the reach and connections to work closely with government, academia and industry, to establish an alliance, align existing and planned initiatives, and raise awareness of the importance of STEM-related skills.
The EY STEM initiative consists of three areas: attracting, retaining and progressing. And all of us have a role to play through our Industry:
Industry plays a role in articulating the importance of STEM-related skills that extend beyond traditional STEM occupations. Fast jet pilots are cool but so are bomb technicians and drone engineers!
Industry can inspire students to take on more challenging STEM subjects – camps for coding and robotics give girls a safe space to try.
Industry can encourage and provide key female role models to profile and use as part of programs to grow interest in STEM-related careers. Mentoring is as rewarding as it is beneficial.
And industry can play a key role in driving research, innovation and employment for STEM graduates. The workforce of the future depends on the foundations we lay today.
I have seen firsthand how industry can provide opportunities for people to move into the STEM space, not only at Jericho but in my current role with other clients where the challenges of future airspace management call for increasingly technical and innovate ways of working.
Call to action
The EY STEM initiative draws on all of this. EY’s experience in education and technology, our understanding of government policies and processes, and our internal efforts to promote our own women in tech means we are well placed to drive this nation towards being a STEM fluent citizenry.
STEM is the defining factor in helping make the world a better place for future generations. We need these skills and capabilities to change the world. I can see my role (and EY’s role) in empowering young people to realise their potential and conquer their ambition.
But …what role will you play?
As a parent, as a sibling, as a mentor, as an employee in your workplace, as an employer or even as a business leader?
It is a big problem to tackle as an individual, but little actions together can have a big impact. Together, lets direct our energy into building a more diverse STEM-trained workforce ready for tomorrow’s global challenges.
Encourage the females in your life to explore STEM pathways
Support your colleague to give it a go, Just do it! Lean in! and pursue a new skill
And lead fearlessly for our future.

References:
[1] Australian Industry Group, 2015; Office of the Chief Scientist, 2012, 2013, 2014.
[2] Office of the Chief Scientist, Australian Government. Australia’s STEM Workforce. 2016. Available from: https://www.chiefscientist.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/Australias-STEM-workforce_full-report.pdf.
[3] PwC Australia. Future-proofing Australia’s workforce by growing skills in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). 2015. Available from: https://www.pwc.com.au/pdf/a-smart-move-pwc-stem-report-april-2015.pdf
[4] Deloitte Access Economics, Office of the Chief Scientist. Australia’s STEM workforce: a survey of employers. 2014. Available from: https://www.chiefscientist.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/DAE_OCS-Australias-STEM-Workforce_FINAL-REPORT.pdf

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