Woman in STEM

Ahead of its annual Corrosion and Prevention Conference in Melbourne, the Australasian Corrosion Association (ACA) takes a look at the people and initiatives fighting for gender parity in the corrosion sector. 

Modern developed economies use technology in a vast, diverse range of ways, from the mathematics used to develop public-private key encryption that secures internet transactions to the physics underpinning the many types of battery powering our cars, phones and computers.

A diverse workforce, well-educated in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – referred to as the STEM subjects – is required by most businesses, industries and organisations.

According to the 2019 Women in STEM Decadal Plan, prepared by the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) and the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, every organisation in Australia is increasingly reliant on STEM skills to thrive, whether they operate in government, academia, industry, or the education sector. 

“All these stakeholders face a common challenge: the need to tackle the significant under-representation of women in the STEM workforce, because we can ill afford to under-utilise all of the nation’s available talent,” the AAS report states. 

“To achieve this requires removing barriers to participation at every point of the STEM pipeline. We must create an environment where girls and women can readily engage in STEM education and then use those skills to progress through their careers to senior levels.”

In many ways, the corrosion industry reflects this general state of affairs, being reliant on researchers – investigating both the process of corrosion and ways to control it – and practitioners managing its application.

To support its sector in particular – and industry in general – the Australasian Corrosion Association (ACA) provides an extensive knowledge base of best practices in corrosion management, thus ensuring all impacts of corrosion are responsibly managed, the environment protected and economics improved. 

A framework to create long-lasting change

Through its ACA Foundation, the organisation also provides research that is used in curriculum development for schools and universities.

The AAS report suggests using an attract–retain–progress framework gives an understanding of the issues and challenges faced by women and girls in their STEM education and working lives. 

Attraction relates to encouraging girls and women to pursue STEM education and careers and ensuring they see STEM as a viable and exciting career pathway.

A good education is the starting point which must provide learning and teaching environments in which girls choose and relish all STEM subjects. 

Sarah Furman, Associate Director-Advanced Materials, AECOM

Sarah Furman, Associate Director-Advanced Materials, AECOM

Sarah Furman, Associate Director-Advanced Materials at AECOM in Melbourne, was one of only three girls in Year 12 at her all-girl school studying STEM subjects. 

“My teachers thought my subject choice – three science and two maths – was too hard for a girl,” Ms Furhman said. “While I did get a lot of pressure to make alternative choices that they said would give me access to a broader range of subjects, my decision probably impacted the finances of the school as it had to set aside a teacher for just three students.”

However, Trish Shaw, Principal Scientist and Team Leader, Coating and Polymers Team, Callaghan Innovation in New Zealand, said she did not feel any pressure to change her subjects. 

“Ultimately, I went down a completely science orientated path. While at age 15 I thought I may do social history and French, by the time I was in 7th form I was taking two maths, chemistry, physics and biology,” Ms Shaw said.

“While I was always in the minority – one of three or four girls in a class of 30 doing chemistry and physics – I did not perceive any pressure to change to other subjects. Also, we almost exclusively topped the classes.”

Tracey Grantham, Customer Relations Manager with Adelaide Galvanising Industries, studied science and maths at school but went on to study occupational safety, health and welfare as well as adult learning before starting work in the corrosion industry. 

“While I could study science, at my rural high school, chemistry and agriculture were definitely considered male career options,” Ms Grantham said.

While Ms Furman, Ms Shaw and Ms Grantham were in the minority of girls at their schools, they expressed similar reasons for studying STEM subjects at school. 

Ms Grantham stated that she “liked the fact that the answer was definitive and could be proven”; while for Ms Furman it was the “analytical nature of the subjects and the subject’s applicability to the real world”. 

Similarly, Ms Shaw felt she “liked science because it was problem solving and always learning new things about how everything worked and how the world was put together.”

Young women underrepresented in STEM subjects

Various reports by the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority and other bodies covering the years 2015 – 2017, show the numbers of girls electing to study engineering and computing in Year 12 was 10 and 19 per cent. 

This trend was mirrored in university and VET enrolments for the same subjects. It was only in biology and health subjects where the gender split changed for females to outnumber males.

In 2016, only a quarter of places were taken by women, in contrast to India where more than twice as many girls were studying STEM subjects or China where the uptake was 76 per cent by girls.

Ms Furman recalls that when she was at university ten per cent of the 300 students in the engineering subjects were girls. 

“However, if I remember correctly, all the girls graduated from the course,” she added.

The ACA works with industry and academia to be a source for advice to support curricula design and also develop course materials to support specific subjects. Ms Furman added that she had been on the Board of the ACA Foundation in such a role. 

“We looked at curriculum design and course material development that would engage students in Years 9 and 10 and so encourage them to stay on with the STEM subjects,” she said. “But we also looked at the other end of education showing graduates an idea of where/what they can do with the subjects they study.”

Tracey Grantham, Customer Relations Manager, Adelaide Galvanising Industries

Tracey Grantham, Customer Relations Manager, Adelaide Galvanising Industries

Unpacking the available statistics

The most recent census data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) shows that while women make up 47.5 per cent of Australia’s workforce, they only make 16 per cent of the STEM-skilled workforce. 

For companies within the technology and research sectors, the number of women at each more senior level steadily drops until only 28 per cent of managerial roles are filled by women. At the C-Suite level of such organisations, representation decreases further with women occupying only eight per cent of the corner offices.

Even in disciplines where women have greater than 50 per cent representation at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels, such as in agriculture and environmental sciences, and health sciences, the proportion of women in these fields significantly decreases after the early to mid career stage. 

This clearly demonstrates the problem of retention, ensuring the experiences of girls and women pursuing a career in STEM are conducive to them remaining in a STEM career.

There have been brief periods in history when the skills and abilities of women were appreciated and used. During the Second World War, slightly more than half of the 16,000 people working at Bletchley Park on code breaking were female and there was similar equality during the United States’ space program in the 1960s with women filling the majority of the “computational” roles. 

Unfortunately, this has not been maintained and in the intervening decades, the percentage of women in Australia studying science and technology at secondary and tertiary levels and then using it in the workforce has steadily declined. 

Removing the causes of women leaving industry

The AAS report also points out that all employers of STEM professionals must curtail the attrition of women from the STEM workforce by removing obstacles, barriers and biases which are disincentives for women to remain in STEM careers or return to them after career interruptions.

The hurdles faced by women arise at every stage of their schooling and working career. The most common include lack of role models, stereotyping and discrimination. Both Ms Furman and Ms Shaw stated they felt that more role models might have helped them somewhat at the start of their careers. 

Ms Furman added that her team at AECOM was 65 per cent female and that many of them had been asked to be guest lecturers on courses at universities in Melbourne. “In this way, girls can see other women in leadership/decision making roles as well as working at the coal face within industry and become the role models that have been missing,” she said.

In a similar vein, Ms Shaw’s group in New Zealand regularly welcomes local school groups to her workplace. “If a group of female students comes through, we give them tours and get them to talk to women scientists so they can see that there are role models. We actually created an intern position for one woman just finishing a degree in engineering after she visited,” she said.

“In recent years, I’ve been thinking it might have been of value to have some women supporting me. I came through an era where I didn’t want to be treated differently, I’m just a scientist and why should my gender make an issue?”

While it is becoming easier to get girls and young women to take up studying the STEM subjects – anecdotally there are increasing numbers of women in engineering classes across the country – keeping them within industry is the challenge. 

According to Furman, “Materials Engineering appears to be appealing to women because it is a combination of scientific disciplines that can be applied in the real world”. 

Trish Shaw, Principal Scientist and Team Leader, Coating and Polymers Team, Callaghan Innovation

Trish Shaw, Principal Scientist and Team Leader, Coating and Polymers Team, Callaghan Innovation

Creating equitable opportunities for progression

Progression is the third broad category of challenges faced by women in STEM and relates to the ability of women to move equitably to the highest levels of their chosen career.

For Ms Shaw’s team at the New Zealand Government’s innovation agency, the staff mix reflects the ABS figures with 20 per cent being women. She admits this is not very high and that in the group she works in, only four out of 20 are women. “Out of the 20 team leaders only two are female. However, our Chief Executive at Callaghan Innovation is female,” she said.

It will not be the simple matter of developing a new curriculum and strategy for getting women excited by the STEM subjects and the corrosion industry. It will also involve changing long-entrenched workplace attitudes. 

“It’s important to recognise that you have to bring men on this journey so they don’t feel threatened by women in the workplace and understand that women can bring a different perspective and different approach and they don’t have to be afraid of us,” Ms Shaw said. 

Twenty years ago, workplaces were predominantly male and those are the people that have risen to the level of making decisions but those people are now starting to retire which facilitates change.

“It has been quite hard for women to have that balance and have families and have time off and still get back into their careers. In sciences and engineering, I think it’s getting better now and people are recognising the value of diversity so they are making it easier for women to have those career breaks,” Ms Shaw said.

“When I started out in the galvanising industry I felt ostracised on work sites where I heard comments such as ‘Don’t worry, the boys will know what they are talking about,” Ms Grantham added. “Fortunately for my daughter who also works in an industry with few females, things have changed and she faces ‘speed humps’ rather than ‘hurdles.’”

“I haven’t really noticed any barriers because of my gender, often because I have remained focused on achieving tasks,” Ms Furman said. “If we do our job right, it gives a good feeling to know we are a part of something that might still be here 100 years from now.”

“We have had conversations about ‘unconscious bias’ which is also very hard to define. Whenever someone was talking about whether you were going to give a senior role to a hypothetical person they would always refer to this ‘person’ as ‘he’,” Ms Shaw said.

“I would strongly recommend that women getting into this field look for and take advantage of other women in the field, don’t see it as a sign of weakness to look to them as mentors and sounding boards. It is easy to get isolated.”

Like the work mentors, it is important to have support and encouragement at other stages of life. Parents, career counsellors and societal behaviours and values all influence the choices made by girls and young women. 

However, girls engaging in and with STEM education will not on its own facilitate retention and progression through their careers. “I do not know why society appears to think the sciences are so hard but the school curriculum seems to add to the difficulties of subject choice,” Ms Furman said. “I was lucky that my father encouraged me in all my choices.”

Support was available at home for Grantham as well, but “as youngest of eight you had to fight to prove your merit”. 

How individuals and institutions can drive change

A lot of professional associations provide great networks of knowledge. People in the industry are encouraged to attend seminars, training courses and other functions like those that the ACA hosts, all of which helps develop a ‘technical’ support network as well.

Furman said she had great teachers at both primary and secondary school but also had continuing support from friends and family. “Such an on-going support network is very important,” she added.

The corrosion industry seems to foster resilience and determination in its practitioners. According to Wayne Burns, ACA member and consultant at Anode Engineering, this was exemplified by a particular woman back in 1989. 

“It seemed like we all went to hell and back in August that year,” he said. “The day before the start of our major joint conference in Surfers Paradise, the airline pilots strike started.”

“This young corrosion practitioner from Perth was due to be presented with an award and was not going to let the adversity and inconvenience of the strike get in her way,” Mr Burns added. 

“She was determined to be present to receive her award and proceeded to get across country by bus, rail and any other form of transport necessary and her efforts were roundly applauded by the members of the Association.” 

Such tenacity is an aspiration for young people to strive to follow.

The journeys of Ms Grantham, Ms Shaw and Ms Furman to their chosen careers may have been varied, but – badly paraphrasing Monsignor Georges Lamaitre, a Belgian physicist and ordained priest in the 1920s and 30s – there are many paths to the truth.

The ACA’s annual ‘Corrosion and Prevention’ conference and exhibition will be held at Crown Promenade in Melbourne from 24-27 November. On Tuesday 26 November, the Association will hold the inaugural “Women in Corrosion Breakfast,” 7am for 7:30am, at Eureka Towers. 

Tracey Grantham, Trish Shaw and Sarah Furman will be amongst the panellists for the event.

This partner content is brought to you by the Australasian Corrosion Association. View more information on the Corrosion and Prevention Conference here.

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