Australia’s future depends on us all

14 February 2024

Sallyann Williams Headshot

Sally-Ann Williams FTSE

CEO Cicada Innovations

Over 10 million patients worldwide have benefited from the diagnostic tests for cancer and infectious diseases created by Cicada Innovations incubatee, SpeeDx. During COVID-19, SpeedX manufactured COVID-19 tests and supplied them to the US and in Australia. SpeeDx founders, Adjunct Professor Alison Todd FTSE and Dr Elisa Mokany received the 2022 Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation, putting them amongst a growing cohort of women overcoming the odds in STEM. If we are to achieve Australia’s ambitious science and engineering agenda, we must ensure that we are providing opportunities for ALL Australians to fully participate. Alison and Elisa’s stories are not to be the exception, but the norm.

While science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs are predicted to grow to 14.2 percent by 2026, only 20 percent of STEM-qualified people are women. Gender disparities extend to leadership roles, where 23 percent of senior management and 8 percent of CEOs in STEM-qualified industries are women. On average, women still earn 18 percent less than men across all STEM industries.

Additionally, other underrepresented groups such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, new migrants, individuals from regional areas, LGBTQIA+ people and people with disabilities require better representation in STEM. This is essential if we wish to see the emergence of technologies that address the significant challenges we are facing globally.

Addressing underrepresentation involves discussing both historical and structural barriers. We need to address the structural impediments to people participating in STEM at every stage of the journey – from kindergarten to employment – and the systems embedded in our institutions and organisations that perpetuate this. The Pathway to Diversity in STEM draft recommendations emphasise the role of leadership & governance in making this change.  

Leadership and governance in promoting diversity & inclusion in STEM must go beyond surface-level commitment and adopt accountability and governance. Right now in Australia there’s a conversation around every boardroom about mandatory environmental reporting. The decisions executives make and the role of the board in governance is under a spotlight that is driving change in everyday business decisions to avoid the serious consequences of greenwashing. If we are serious about diversity & inclusion in STEM, we need to follow a similar path.  

This means setting clear goals and targets. Holding people accountable for achieving them. Investing in long-term initiatives. It means putting performance metrics and measurements in place for board members and executives, and putting bonuses at risk for non-achievement. We must use the governance tools available to us to continually drive both structural and behavioural change in our organisations. We must all take personal responsibility for making changes to dismantle systems and processes that don’t drive inclusive outcomes by examining our own bias, behaviour and policies and processes that might prevent inclusion and access in education, employment, community leadership, and representation.  

The role the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) plays in championing the application of science and technology for our future economy is critical. It’s one of the reasons I’m delighted to be joining the ATSE Fellowship to lend my support for a more inclusive workforce and pathway, for better outcomes for us all.  

The Pathway to Diversity in STEM Review final recommendations report has now been published by the Department of Industry, Science and Resources. ATSE has welcomed the release of the Review, in particular the focus on proactive inclusion, equity, fairness and safety, and a place at the STEM research and development table for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

This article will appear in the upcoming issue of ATSE’s Impact magazine to be published in February 2024, and was written following Sally-Ann Williams’ election as an ATSE Fellow in October 2023.