Why is higher education’s role in achieving gender equality fundamental to Australian innovation and entrepreneurship?

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Australian universities are continually faced with the changing needs of government, industry and community. The higher education sector has a key role in creating a relevant and responsive workforce which is able to meet, if not subvert, global challenges. In doing so, universities have a responsibility to remove the gender barriers faced by aspiring researchers, innovators and entrepreneurs. Not only does this recognise basic human rights, it improves our ability to develop organisational sustainability and national/ global economic growth. Diversity is vital for the future of Australian innovation and it plays a key role in the development of entrepreneurship-based solutions to address current international issues.

In Australia, a recent shift of Federal research dollars has occurred from the humanities to engineering and medicine. This signals the Commonwealth Government’s desire to set the broad research agenda and occurs at a time when both STEM, and increasing more women into STEM, are a cross-sectoral focus. Increasingly, we are seeing more examples of industry partnerships with universities that are delivering the desired results; a critical platform for the higher education sector in the quest for demonstrating relevance to achieve sustainability. The successful partnerships are a result of systematic relationship building and monitoring, clarity from the outset around expectations, and clear communication that is understood at all levels within both organisations.

Diversity of thought is vital to keeping up with the pace. By staying globally responsive to real world problems, research needs to translate into practical applications which feed entrepreneurship. ECU is committed to growing strategic partnerships with industry to ensure all students are work-ready. In December 2017, ECU’s Joondalup campus was announced as the location of the Western Australian Government’s first Innovation Hub. The Western Australian Node of the Federally-funded, industry-led AustCyber organisation will be located at the Hub, supporting growth of local cyber security industry driven by ECU’s expertise as a world leader in cyber security research.  Also in 2017, ECU became one of only two designated Academic Centres of Excellence in Australia, receiving $900,000 from the Commonwealth Government to support students taking up studies and research in cyber security. Initiatives such as these will drive the creation of a diverse workforce capable of supporting cyber security in a digital era.

The University has also visibly made good progress towards achieving real change in equality through a range of initiatives in the past two years. This included providing a supportive network for women and gender diverse people, achieving greater visibility of female role models in STEM, the recruitment of real male champions for gender equality, and targeted actions which support junior female researchers. From ‘buddy’ programs that provide a forum for shared experiences to formalised sponsorship and mentorship programs, all aspects of the career journey are being considered. The threat of typical ‘exit points’ for women in their careers (i.e. parental leave is still dominated by women) needs to be addressed. For return-to-work parents, re-entry and re-adjustment strategies are necessary in ensuring the growth and retention of existing talent and potentially are yet to be realised. 

It is vital that women receive the sponsorship they need to progress their education, careers and enterprises with the potential grow and build on their knowledge base.[1] Target areas including STEM where gender disparity is felt the most, need to be a key area of focus for growth in innovation. According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA), data continues to show women dominating Health Care and Social Assistance and Education and Training. While these are important areas of work, deeply embedded stereotypes are still inherent in our community and the status quo needs to be challenged more aggressively.[2][1] It’s unacceptable and abhorrent, that in 2018, there’s still a 14.6% gender pay gap equating to $17,500, which is a significant disincentive to women entering or remaining in STEM professions. Similarly, the lack of advancement is also forcing women out of STEM careers; and at a time that Australia needs to best and the brightest in management, leadership and senior STEM roles.[3][2] In the 2018 STEM Professional Survey Report, a “third of female engineers aged between 25 and 35 said they were intending to leave their profession in the next five years”.[3][3]

ECU also strives to make a real difference in awareness raising and education within society. The University has numerous engagement activities in place to ensure male-dominated STEM-based subjects are made visible and accessible to female high school students during their formative years. One such program is the Girls’ Programming Network at ECU. This program aims to not only gauge the interest of young female students in coding and software development, but also enhance the profile of female industry partners who are then enabled to mentor and inspire girls (as well as boys) into innovation-led careers. As participants in the first tranche of the Australian Pilot of the Athena SWAN Charter hosted by the Science in Gender Equity initiative (SAGE), ECU is fully committed to redressing the barriers women and gender diverse groups’ face in academia and research where innovation flourishes.

While on a national scale, Australia is now making efforts to redress gender stereotyping, there needs to be a greater focus on the critical impact that diversity has on entrepreneurship and innovation, as existing approaches are not working fast enough. Decades of research show that diverse groups are more innovative than homogeneous ones as they provide different viewpoints.[4][4] For Australia to perform on the global stage for innovation, it needs to bring its entire pool of talent to the table. Millennials (and no doubt future generations) have very different drivers for success in comparison to their predecessors. Rather than security and stability, this generation is driven by professional development, rapid career progression and inclusive environments.[6][5] Universities must incubate the talents of this generation so they ultimately can realise the full breadth of their ability.

Any system that generates innovation and the potential for entrepreneurship and collaboration requires the equal participation of all genders. This must be realised across not simply the education sector but also broader communities and industry. The role of external engagement and robust and structured relationship management are vital and will significantly influence Australia’s ability to ensure an economy that flourishes.[6][6] Efforts to achieve gender parity as part of this process should not be viewed as a cost but as an opportunity.[7][7] By investing in greater avenues for women and gender diverse people to engage in entrepreneurship, and progress in their careers at the same pace as men, we will see tremendous strides in our ability to innovate.P

Notes:

  1. Australian female entrepreneurs, they have the why, now they need the how – virgin.com
  2. WGEA media release – 2 August 2016: Stereotypes about women’s work, men’s work threaten innovation
  3. Study Professionals Australia releases Women in STEM Report (2018)
  4. How Diversity Makes Us Smarter (article in Scientific American, 2014)
  5. Why is innovation increasingly becoming critical to entrepreneurship, July 2017 – entrepreneur.com
  6. Boosting High-Impact Entrepreneurship in Australia. Report (2015)
  7. The economic benefits of gender parity (Article in Stanford Social Innovation Review March 8, 2016)

[1] WGEA media release – 2 August 2016: Stereotypes about women’s work, men’s work threaten innovation

[2] https://thenewdaily.com.au/money/work/2018/09/23/women-stem-pay-gap-study/

http://www.professionalsaustralia.org.au/blog/professionals-australia-releases-women-stem-report/

[3] http://www.professionalsaustralia.org.au/professional-women/wp-content/uploads/sites/48/2018/08/2018-Women-in-STEM-Survey-Report_web.pdf

[4] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-diversity-makes-us-smarter/

[5] Why is innovation increasingly becoming critical to entrepreneurship, July 2017 – entrepreneur.com

[6] https://www.chiefscientist.gov.au/2015/10/media-release-building-a-culture-of-entrepreneurship/

[7] http://www.mckinsey.com/mgi/overview/in-the-news/the-economic-benefits-of-gender-parity