Dr V Bissonauth, Research Coordinator, Mauritius Research Council
Dr M Madhou, Research Coordinator, Mauritius Research Council
Dr D Saddul, President, OWSD Mauritius Chapter
Ladies and Gentlemen
It’s a pleasure to be here to deliver the keynote address today.
I would like to congratulate the MRC for taking the initiative to conduct the study on the “STEM Enrolment at Secondary and Tertiary Education levels as well as women’s participation in Research and Development”. I am looking forward to hearing the results of the study.
I am also interested to hear from the OWSD Mauritian chapter – founded only last year with support from the Australian High Commission and a cohort of Australian alumni and other impressive STEM women in Mauritius. I congratulate the members of the OWSD on the role it is playing to advance women in STEM.
11 February marks the fourth annual International Day of Women and Girls in Science.
We know why there is an increased focus on STEM, and STEM for women and girls in particular. International research shows that building STEM capacity across the population is critical in helping to support innovation and productivity regardless of occupation or industry. Consistent with this research, industry surveys show that STEM literacy is increasingly becoming part of the core capabilities that employers need, not matter what the sector of employment.
PricewaterhouseCoopers, for example, has estimated that changing one percent of Australia’s workforce into STEM-related roles would add $57.4 billion to GDP.
Regrettably, we are not succeeding in attracting more girls and young women to STEM subjects – both in schools and universities. The Executive director of the Royal Academy of Science International Trust (RASIT) said recently the advancement of women and girls in science has not only stalled, but has started regressing with a widening of the gender gap in science.
According to UN women, fewer than 30 percent of researchers worldwide are women, which could have deep implications for the global economy’s future with too few women in decision-making roles and higher-paying jobs in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Research from the Brookings Institute revealed that women are under-represented throughout the innovation pipeline; they earn 57 percent of all college degrees, but only 35 percent of the degrees are in STEM fields.
So what is keeping women and girls from participating in STEM?
I for one and proud to say that I am a STEMinist!
There will come a time, I hope and believe, when we will no longer need to have special sessions – like this one – that focus on opening up opportunities for women and girls. Unfortunately, that time is not now.
The Australian Government recognises this and that is why in October last year, Australia nominated its first Women in STEM Ambassador. She is an award winning astrophysicist – Professsor Lisa Harvey-Smith - and her job is to encourage girls and women to study and work in STEM fields. The Australian Government is committed to improving gender equity in STEM and the Ambassador role is part of a $4.5 million package announced in Australia’s national Budget last year.
The Ambassador will work on a national scale in Australia to raise awareness of the issues that can hold girls and women back from STEM study and work. She will increase understanding of the opportunities available to girls and women in STEM, aiming to increase their participation. Through her advocacy, the Ambassador will help drive cultural and social change for gender equity.
During her two-year appointment, the Ambassador will achieve these objectives in a variety of ways. Professor Harvey-Smith will engage with those already striving to achieve greater STEM equity. She will travel around the country to encourage all young Australians – boys and girls - to get involved in STEM. As Ambassador, she will be a visible role model herself, inspiring young Australians and aspiring scientists. And what a role model she is! She is an award-winning astrophysicist and her research has been published in more than 40 scientific papers. She has spent much of her career working to maintain and develop professional astronomical observatories, built on her lifelong passion for astronomy and has held the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science 2018 which is a prize to recognise the contributions our scientists, innovators and science teachers make to Australia's scientific and commercialisation capabilities.
Role models and recognition are incredibly important factors to inspire girls and boys in this field, as is the case in any field. I was delighted that in 2018 – our Australian of the Year - was a woman in science - Professor Michelle Simmons, a leading professor in quantum physics. Professor Simmons has pioneered research that could lead to a quantum leap in computing and reshape the way we live and how we experience the world – her work is helping develop leading technology on a global scale.
In 2012, Professor Simmons and her team created the world’s first transistor made from a single atom, along with the world’s thinnest wire. The breakthrough means Australia is now at the forefront of what Professor Simmons calls the “space race of the computing era”.
Her aim is to build a quantum computer able to solve problems in minutes which would otherwise take thousands of years. Such a discovery has the potential to revolutionise drug design, weather forecasting, self-driving vehicles, artificial intelligence and much more. Professor Simmons is a role model to young scientists everywhere and she encourages all students, especially girls, to dream big, challenge themselves and to achieve ambitious goals in science.
At the local level here in Mauritius we are also supporting STEM.
During the International Conference on the Young Persons Plan for the Planet–held in Mauritius at the end of last year [29 November – 1 December], 50 high school students from Australia visited to work with their peers in Mauritius to develop STEM and entrepreneurial skills and competencies in global sustainability and global strategic planning and action. The aim was to deliver the Young Australians’ and Young Mauritians’ Plan for the Planet across the United Nation’s 17 Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs). This was supported by Australia’s leading university, ANU, and our national science centres in both countries - Questacon and the Rajiv Gandhi Science Centre.
In talking with the teachers about how Australian schools get girls interested in STEM, one teacher from Shenton College from Perth (who by the way made this great STEMinist badge I am wearing today) said the main factor they discovered that prevented girls getting into STEM was the aversion girls had to taking risks. So they addressed this by generating excitement in and around STEM subjects, and openly talking about the low risk of taking high level Mathematics courses. There has been a transformation and the data shows that it is working.
As I said earlier, I am looking forward to hearing the results of your study and its Mauritius specific elements and how it relates to other research from around the world including in Australia where we also face a great challenge.
Research we have read shows important things like providing role models, generating excitement, providing hands on experiences, providing encouragement, encouraging a growth mindset and turning insight into action are key factors to getting women and girls to participate in STEM.
The U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics predicted in 2017 that technology professionals will experience the highest-growth in job numbers between now and 2030. Failing to bring the minds and perspectives of half the population to STEM and computer science fields stifles innovation and makes it less likely that we can solve today’s social challenges at scale.
The Microsoft computing company also commissioned a research project to understand better what causes girls and women to lose interest in STEM subjects and careers, as well as what strategies and interventions have the greatest potential to reverse this trend.
They found things like –
- Girls needed to be provided with more exposure to positive role models and mentors that they can both relate to and aspire to be.
- Demonstrate a path forward in terms of turning an interest in STEM and computer science into success in school and in a career.
- Support extracurricular STEM activities that teach girls how to create and build confidence (eg. programs like the Young Persons Plan for the Planet).
- Provide hands-on experiences and real-world examples.
- Emphasize the creative aspects of STEM and computer science.
- Demonstrate the dramatic impact that STEM and computer science jobs have on the world.
- Encourage parents, teachers and others influential in a girl’s life to support and foster interest in STEM and computer science.
- Support teachers to develop strategies to engage students who are afraid to ask questions, be wrong or ask for additional help.
- Listen to what girls say about their challenges and desires.
Microsoft found that girls lose interest in STEM as they get older – from primary school to university interest dropped from 31 per cent of girls believed coding wasn’t for them, then by University 58% believed coding wasn’t for them. The truth about STEM and computer science subjects and careers are that they are powerful creative outlets and opportunities to make a difference. They must be presented that way to connect with how girls see themselves and their futures.
Girls want hands on experiences – STEM clubs and activities can make a real difference, as well as encouragement by teachers and parents – mums and dads providing encouragement. Because many girls still think of STEM as being for males, it helps to have men breaking these mindsets. We also have to let girls and women know that it is good to try, fail and inquire.
The Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) platform (bringing together the Australian Academy of Science Fellowship, and the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering) aims to improve gender equity in STEMM in the Australian high education and research sector. SAGE notes that studies show that women researchers are squeezed out of science careers by structural barriers. The loss of such expertise is a significant waste of knowledge, talent and investment. Gender equity and gender diversity impact on a nation’s scientific performance and productivity. SAGE notes that structural barriers are evident in the male-dominated executive teams in academia and research institutes, the outdated and embedded views of women academics, and in the academic progression and promotion processes that fail to take into account career breaks that women may need to take for family reasons. The culture of an organisation can also seriously hinder women and minority groups.
As a representative of the Australian Government, part of my role is helping meet Mauritius’ needs in these sectors – and one of the main delivery mechanisms for this agenda is through our Australia Awards scholarship and fellowship programs.
The aim is to build human capacity and linkages with Australia and the region. We have a long history of our Awardees studying engineering and more recently fields such as biotechnology. A major objective of our development assistance program is to empower women and girls and I am pleased to say 50 percent of our Australian Awardees are women. Our fellowships, like the one which Ms Bhamini Applaswamny from the RGSC joined, was led by Questacon (Australia’s national science the technology centre) to promote its Science Circus Africa program – which has generated enduring links with Australian institutions and seeks to engender a love and fascination with science at a young age among girls and boys.
Australia Awards Africa are open to government, private sector and civil society. The Australia Awards proudly boasts a number of impressive Alumni from Mauritius who are members of STEM, and many more Mauritians that have studied at Australian education institutions recognising our world class reputation for education and research excellence. I have brought some copies of our Alumni publication that highlights some of their achievements – including the inaugural President of the OWSD Dr Saddul.
The Australian High Commission also brokers partnerships and champions gender equity. During the inaugural Australia Mauritius Research and Innovation Forum, which brought Australian and Mauritius experts together to look at key challenges in education and learning, food security, and use of advanced technologies in priority sectors, we were pleased the keynote address from Murdoch University’s Vice Chancellor focused on women in science. And during AMRIF, we were pleased to support the launch of a Mauritian chapter of Organisation of Women in Science in the Developing World knowing how critical getting more girls and women into STEM fields is.
As conference and workshop organisers, it is important that our presenters and panels are inclusive and reflect diversity – this can be a challenge. But with commitment and effort, it is possible. And I challenge you, particularly the males, to take on the Panel Pledge – a practical commitment promoted by the Male Champions for Change Program in Australia – where men in particular refuse to participate in a Panel if there is no such diversity.
The MRC – through its innovative international bridges program – provides another important mechanism to encourage collaborative projects and I congratulate the MRC on its various grant programs and we hope to see more institutions and female researchers involved in these projects.
All of these initiatives start with one person - even if you are one drop of water in an ocean, those drops combined make the ocean – a powerful vehicle and source of energy. We need to get the message to girls that when one girl sees the power in STEM and computing, she becomes a role model for her friends and community.
Women can make a significant difference to the betterment of society. After all, a nation that doesn’t harness and utilise the talents and skills and perspectives and insights and intelligence of around 50 per cent of its population will never reach its full potential.
This is not just about equity, it’s proven economic sense. It’s important that this diversity is reflected at the highest levels across government, academia and industry. And the power of mentoring – by men and women – is a critical ingredient to encouraging more women to succeed.
I congratulate the OWSD’s work in encouraging women to break down the gender barriers and get involved in STEM. And I congratulate the MRC for its leadership role in driving this agenda with partners in Mauritius and around the globe.
19 February 2019, Mauritius Research Council