There’s no workplace equity for women in STEM – and COVID-19 made it worse

The events of 2020 are reshaping the way we live, work, teach, and learn. And while we have all been affected differently, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women has been particularly significant.

A recent report by the Rapid Research Information Forum found the pandemic has left women facing disproportionate increases in caring responsibilities and disruptions to working hours and job security.

The hard-won gains made by women in science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) are at risk, especially if employers of people with STEM skills do not closely monitor and mitigate the gender impact of their decisions.

The pre-pandemic impact of caring for children and the uptake of flexible working arrangements are just two of the issues considered in the second edition of the STEM Workforce Report, released this week by the Office of the Chief Scientist. Drawing on the 2016 Australian Census data, this report provides a comprehensive analysis of the STEM workforce in Australia.

It analyses the nearly 1.2 million people with vocational STEM qualifications and the roughly 700,000 people with university STEM qualifications in the Australian labor force in 2016. As such, it will enable informed decision-making to help plan our future STEM workforce needs.

[Read: The lack of women in cybersecurity puts us all at greater risk]

The slow pace of change

Our analysis found that people with STEM qualifications work in a wide range of occupations and industries. On average, they earn more than those with non-STEM qualifications, and these incomes increase with qualification level. In 2016, 34% of employed STEM university graduates earned A$104,000 or above, compared with 24% of non-STEM university graduates. Of STEM university graduates, 32% of those with a bachelor’s degree, 34% of those with a master, and 45% of those with a doctoral degree earned A$104,000 or above.

However, the pace of change towards a fairer and more diverse STEM labor force is still slow. In 2006, 27% of STEM university graduates in the labor force were women. A decade later, this had only risen to 29%.

Just 3.3% of Australian-born women with a university STEM qualification were unemployed, as of census night in 2016. But the corresponding figure for similarly qualified overseas-born women who arrived in Australia between 2006 and 2016 was 14.1%.

Women in STEM also have lower average pay than similarly qualified men, in both part-time and full-time roles. For full-time workers with university STEM qualifications, 45% of men earned A$104,000 or above, compared with 26% of women.