83% of women leave their STEM careers: we’re changing that

83% of women leave their STEM careers: we’re changing that

Did you know that research has found that over half of the people who graduate with a science PhD and become early career researchers are women, but 83 per cent of senior academics in universities and research institutes are men? Yep – women make up just 17 per cent of the people who continue on in a long term career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

As women leave STEM field, we are losing a lot of expert, qualified professionals. This impacts Australia’s scientific performance and productivity.

Why do women leave?

Why do so many women start a career in STEM but leave it before rising through the ranks? There are many reasons. Research by the Australian Human Rights Commission found that:

‘One in two (49%) mothers reported experiencing discrimination in the workplace at some point. Further, over a quarter (27%) of the fathers and partners surveyed reported experiencing discrimination related to parental leave and return to work despite taking very short periods of leave.’

While women find it hard to return to work after having children and men find it hard to be granted time off work for parenting, the workforce will continue to lose talented women.

According to Women in the Science Research Workforce there are many structural issues that are causing these problems, including what they call the ‘baby penalty’, employment conditions and a need to redefine what the ‘ideal science researcher’ is: this definition should not only include groups of elite scientists, but a wider, more diverse science workforce.

These research findings reflect a need for change – how can we help women in STEM feel supported enough to stay? A group of scientists at La Trobe have responded by creating Supporting Women in Science (SWIS).

SWIS at La Trobe

Microbiologists Jen Wiltshire and Lara Bereza-Malcolm decided to do something to support women in science at La Trobe. They formed SWIS to help women feel supported and mentored as they move through the early years of their careers in STEM.

We had a chat with Oonagh Bodin from SWIS and asked her to tell us more about the formation of the group.

‘We formed Supporting Women in Science after we discovered how big of a gender gap there is in senior science positions – in level E professorship positions representation of women drops down to 10%!’

SWIS had their launch on the 18 November, and it was a huge success, with speeches by Professor Adrienne Clarke and Dr Marguerite Evans-Galea, the co-founder of Women in Science Australia. SWIS also had a comedy debate that sought the answer to the question ‘Is it OK to be a sexy female scientist?’

‘There were some great and hilarious points put forward and the final verdict was chosen by the crowd’s cheers… Yes, it is ok to be a sexy female scientist!’

We asked Oonagh what SWIS had up their sleeve for the future.‘We have lots of plans and ideas lined up for the new-year – and years to come. We have some exciting projects to be launched in 2016, for example a catered seminar series, where we’ll be inviting high achieving people to talk about their experiences.’

SWIS also want to build a mentoring program. ‘We’re hoping to pair senior postgrads with first year PhDs or honours students to form a support system.’

‘One of our goals is to build a support network for women in science on campus, especially those who are in currently undergoing their PhDs – even more so for those who’re in the early years of their PhDs and in their honours year.’

Interested in getting involved? SWIS is open to lots of new members. ‘There are lots of roles available for anyone who wishes to join and help out. Also, if there’s anything anyone would like to see us do, they can let us know on Twitter or Facebook, or they can visit our website and click the ‘join’ tab. ‘We’re open to suggestions and ideas on how we can help postgrads in the best ways possible.’

If you’d like to know more about the founders of SWIS, you can listen to Jen Wiltshire and Lena Bereza-Malcolm discuss their inspiring research on ABC radio.

Women moving forward

Do you know who Mary Anning, Maria Mitchell and Lise Meitner are? They’re pioneers in science, and they’re women. Women in these fields have a long and rich history that many aren’t aware of, which is why it’s so inspiring to see women supporting women in this field. SWIS are developing a positive and supportive culture at La Trobe, and we look forward to seeing how many exciting discoveries come from this new environment.


Would you like to work with women who are changing STEM? Find out more about studying with us.


Thank you to Oonagh Bodin for the image of  SWIS.