STEMM: Seeing how far we have come, how far we have yet to go

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Jun 03, 2019
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This article is part of the Forum Network series on the New Societal Contract and reflects on discussions at OECD Forum 2019.

Co-written with Professor Renae Ryan (Academic Director, Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) Program and School of Medical Sciences, Faculty of Medicine and Health.

When the topic of feminism is brought up in the classroom, there is often a particularly interesting interaction with students that serves as both an encouraging and discouraging experience. 

Many students, particularly female ones, might say: “What is all this nonsense that we’re reading? I myself don’t feel like the future is anything but mine and I don’t think that I’m being held back in any sort of way…” And as a teacher part of what you say is, “Yes, and that’s terrific… but also how do we deal with x and y statistics? And how do you deal with this story or that story, and how do you deal with the realities of other women’s experiences, not necessarily living overseas but also here at home?” 

Photo by Antenna on Unsplash

And then there might be other students, men and women, whose response was more like: “Absolutely everything is terrible, all men are complicit no matter how you look at it. The world is still oppressing women constantly in this, that or the other way”. And then you’d say, “Hang on, hang on: 100 years ago, women could not vote and married women couldn't own property”. 

Consider this: until something like the 1970s, if a female member of University of Sydney staff got married they had to resign – a lived experience that persisted into our lifetimes. 

And so in the wider community, but also within the Science Technology Engineering Maths and Medicine (STEMM) fields, we should recognise the extraordinary progress made so far, while also reaffirming our resolve to enact greater change. 


At the University of Sydney, we have developed successive strategic plans that make gender equity, inclusion and diversity a priority. But we are also the first to acknowledge that, over the course of our first 2010-2015 plan, we were not able to achieve the extent of change we were after in that period. 

In the 2016-2020 Culture Strategy, our university included the Athena Scientific Women’s Academic Network Pilot in our framework to support a dedicated Science in Australia Gender Equity Program Office and Pilot Program to examine and improve greater female participation in STEMM fields. We developed a four-year, data-driven Action Plan to improve workplace culture for all staff, and part of this involved setting university-wide targets to increase the number of women in senior leadership in both academic and professional staff cohorts. 


At another level, I joined the founding group of Male Champions of Change and sponsored a specific initiative to advance the careers of women from cultural and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Our university’s senior leadership has worked with members of staff to develop a Panel Pledge to encourage better gender balance on panels and forums hosted by us or attended by our staff and students. 

Ultimately, we believe that gender equity can be improved across our university because we as a community have critically reflected upon what equity, diversity and inclusion mean to us. Following extensive engagement with staff, including a university-first survey of staff culture and demographics, and commitment from our senior leadership, especially in the proactive and tireless advocacy of our Chancellor Belinda Hutchinson, we have developed and adopted a better understanding of why we share those values in our context and found ways to live up to those values. 

So far, the results in 2019 are extraordinarily encouraging: for the first time in our institution’s history, the three key governing bodies at the University of Sydney now include more women than men. Within our STEMM faculties (taken as a whole) we have reached or exceeded gender parity among academic and professional staff. 

University of Sydney: Women in science
Photo: University of Sydney

But we also see a decline in the representation of women at senior academic positions in STEMM. Women remain persistently under-represented in the specific disciplines of Engineering, Technology, Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry. 

By increasing awareness in the structural and discrete issues faced by women in all spheres, especially within STEMM and academia, we have made it easier for our community to own these problems and further the process of change. But it will never be enough to rest on our laurels while there remains a different kind of challenge: to have personal agency over the gender equity agenda on a day-to-day basis. 

The importance of getting this right goes beyond our staff and the culture of our organisation. Here at the University of Sydney, we educate around 67,000 students per year from across Australia and around the world. We have an opportunity to not only educate our students in their speciality areas but also to create global citizens, with a thorough understanding of the importance of diversity and inclusion to support innovation and progress as well as improve our societies by empowering women and girls to achieve their full potential. 

University of Sydney Alumi
Photo: University of Sydney/Michael Spence

Real cultural change will require continuing work by leadership and existing hierarchies of power and influence, still too often dominated by men, as well as the everyday work across other levels of an organisation. By reminding everyone – in a university, business or within society more generally – that they exist within communities of discourse, we can fulfil the profound hope for deep cultural change in STEMM, higher education and beyond. 

  • What are the values that your organisation aspires to at all levels?
  • If gender equity is one of those values, how have you given everyone within your community the agency to live up to this value?
  • If gender equity is not one of those values, why not?
  • What conversations and actions need to occur to initiate, advance and entrench gender equity within your organisation?

Continue the conversation and help us co-create the agenda

All of the discussions you have on the Forum Network inform our thinking for the OECD Forum event each year – join to respond to Michael and Renae's questions and comment to help us co-create the agenda

Related Topics

Gender Equality
Future of Education & SkillsOECD Forum 2019

Find out more about OECD Forum 2019: World in EMotion

OECD Forum 2019: World in EMotion

Banner image: Ousa Chea on Unsplash

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Michael Spence

Vice-Chancellor, University of Sydney

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