The diversity advantage

The diversity advantage

The Deborah Jin Fellowships offered by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems (EQUS), aims to support and encourage early- and mid-career women physicists.

A STEM skilled workforce is essential to realising Australia’s innovation and productivity potential. Women in STEM face barriers at all levels of the pipeline. Women’s representation in scientific research roles diminishes through all career stages. Tangible action is needed to ensure women scientists are not lost through the career pipeline, due to the known obstacles, barriers, and biases that impact their career retention and progression, especially through caring-related career interruptions (Australian Academy of Science, 2018b; Bell and Yates, 2015).

A snapshot of research and reports on barriers to participation for women in STEM is presented below along with calls for action to breakdown these barriers. Much of the research highlighted below was originally cited within the Australian Academy of Science Women in STEM Decadal Plan. This plan also provides points of action for organisations and case studies demonstrating how improve equity, diversity, and inclusion in the STEM sector. 

What barriers do women in STEM face? 


Women are under-represented as speakers in events and conferences (Holt, 2014); quoted less as sources in science and tech news (Women’s Leadership Institute Australia), and are under-represented as award winners (Lincoln, Pincus, Bandows Koster, and Leboy, 2012)

Education and employment

Women are completing more university degrees overall in Australia (Australian Academy of Science, 2018b) but are underrepresented in STEM with fewer than on tin five students enrolled in tertiary degrees in engineering or ICT. Physics and astronomy (25% women) and mathematical sciences (32% women) have moderate participation rates for women

The proportion of women significantly reduces at every stage of the professional ladder in STEM fields due to a range of factors including workplace culture, discrimination and bias, and a lack of flexibility in work options (Agogino, 2007). Lack of career progression opportunities is one of the main reasons why Australian women in STEM leave the profession (Professionals Australia, 2018)

The graph below shows academic profiles by gender in the natural and physical sciences during 2014. Women constituted more than 50.9% of natural and physical sciences bachelor degree completions but less than 16.3% of Level E academic staff (Science in Australia Gender Equity, 2019). 

Gender Equity in STEMM

Experience of discrimination

A survey of women in the US found 50% of women in STEM jobs had experienced gender discrimination at work, compared with 41% in non-STEM jobs 123. Of the women respondents who worked in male-dominated workplaces, 78% reported experiencing gender discrimination (Australian Academy of Science, Women in STEM Decadal Plan, 2018)

In Australia, 51% of women in STEM jobs have reported being discriminated against on the basis of their gender (Professionals Australia, 2018)

When presented with identical resumes for both genders, both men and women evaluate applications from men as describing more competent and employable candidates than applications from women, and select a higher starting salary and more career mentoring for the man (Moss-Racusin, Dovidio, Brescoll, Graham, and Handelsman, 2012)

Merit tends to be defined by deeply held beliefs based on characteristics innately familiar to those evaluating the merit and so discriminates against diversity (Noland, Moran, and Kotschawar, 2016; Schneider and Ecki, 2016)


Childcare is one of the biggest barriers to women either entering the workforce or working more hours.

Women remain much more likely to work part-time than men. While the percentage of women in their prime working ages working full-time has risen over the past 40 years, only 41% of such women work full-time, compared with 73% of men. The biggest barrier is the need to care for children (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2017).

Women’s disproportionate share of unpaid care and domestic work, lack of workplace flexibility and time out of the workforce are key contributors to the gender pay gap. In Australia, the full-time gender pay gap is 14.1%, meaning women, on average, earn $239.80 per week less than men (Diversity Council Australia, 2018). 

Access to mentoring

If women have executive level mentors they are just as likely to be promoted as men, however, women are less likely to have these high level mentors. Men’s mentors are typically better placed to advocate for their mentees so men receive more promotions and salary increases early in their career, establishing a gender gap from the outset (Carter and Silva, 2010)

The mapping phase of the recent Australian Academy of Science Decadal Plan found that fewer than 5% of the initiatives to support women’s participation in STEM in Australia include mentoring, and the majority focus on secondary and tertiary levels (Australian Academy of Science, 2018b)

What can we do to breakdown these barriers?

The pipeline for women in STEM needs work at multiple points.

Addressing issues of equity and diversity is a major strategic priority for EQUS. We understand that diverse research teams result in more creative outcomes (Diversity Council Australia, 2018b). Diverse viewpoints and experiences enhance the ability for research teams to solve the scientific problems that remain unsolved.  We also understand that diverse working environments are more inclusive and welcoming to all, which enables all researchers, especially those from diverse backgrounds, to feel welcome and perform at their best. EQUS is committed to improving workplace flexibility and offering career support to all staff.

From a strategic perspective, we wish to broaden the pipeline of scientific researchers and leaders in Australia, including those from diverse backgrounds. This initiative is part of EQUS’ equity and diversity in quantum physics strategy, which seeks to address equity and diversity issues including: gender, sexuality, Indigenous Australian heritage, cultural background, and more. 

Recommended actions have from two large, Australia-based reports that have shaped our approach are provided below. 

Women in Science Research Workforce: Identifying and Sustaining the Diversity Advantage (Bell and Yates, 2015)

Work to eliminate barriers for women and improve opportunities for a greater diversity of participants. This should address:

  • The postdoctoral “tipping point”

Survey data confirms that scientific research positions demand high levels of commitment. This commitment and high levels of motivation on the part of researchers drives a culture of long work hours. In addition, a crucial stage of the research career is the intensive research conducted during postdoctoral years. This stage can coincide with decisions around raising a family for researchers and is key to the establishment of a career as an independent researcher. This is a clear tipping point and is represented in the "scissors" graph above. 

  • The impact of career breaks

Data from biological sciences and chemical sciences suggests women are three times more likely than men to take career breaks and also suggests that part-time work, might might lessen this need, is not normalised within either field. 

  • Presence of short-term contracts and project-based support

The uncertain nature of employment in universities - with multiple short-term positions - during the mid-career phase can result in: struggles to obtain a mortgage without secure employment, difficulty in finding practical locations for work, and the need to move to different parts of the world while trying to secure permanent work in research. 

  • An unforgiving and sometimes alienating professional culture

In one study, participants reported bias from other researchers and even mentioned people in attempting to curtail research agendas (Weir, Leach, Gamble, and Creedy, 2014). 

The Australian Academy of Science Women in STEM Decadal Plan (2018b)

The Women in STEM Decadal Plan, developed by the Australian Academy of Science in collaboration with the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, offers a vision and opportunities to guide all stakeholders as they go about identifying and agreeing specific actions they must take to build the strongest STEM workforce possible to support Australia’s prosperity. 

The Decadal Plan highlights six points to address: 

  1. Leadership and cohesion: Stronger cohesion and leadership across the Australian STEM ecosystem will amplify and strengthen diversity outcomes
  2. Evaluation: Establishing a national evaluation framework will guide decision making and drive investment and effort into measures that work
  3. Workplace culture: A significant cultural shift in workplaces is necessary for create gender equity for women in STEM
  4. Visibility: Seeing women in diverse STEM careers and equally represented in media, events, and other forums will provide role models for girls and women
  5. Education: Strengthening the education system to support eaching and learning on a national scale will enable and encourage all girls and women at all levels to study STEM courses and participate in diverse STEM careers
  6. Industry action: Establishing a national framework that guides and provides tool to address gender equity among SMEs

Further reading

  • Agogino A. Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering. In: APS April Meeting Abstracts. 2007. 
  • Australian Academy of Science. Mapping Australian STEM participation initiatives for girls and women. 2018. 
  • Australian Academy of Science, Women in STEM Decadal Plan, 2018b
  • Australian Bureau of Statistics. Barriers and incentives to labour force participation, Australia July 2016 to June 2017. Australian Bureau of Statistics; 2017. 
  • Bell and Yates, Women in Science Research Workforce: Identifying and Sustaining the Diversity Advantage, 2015
  • Carter NM, Silva C. Mentoring: Necessary but insufficient for advancement. Catalyst; 2010. 
  • Diversity Council Australia, Let's Share the Care at Home and Work: A call to action to reduce the gender pay gap, 2018
  • Diversity Council Australia, Inclusion @ Work Index 2017-2018, 2018b
  • Foust-Cummings H, Dinolfo S, Kohler J. Sponsoring women to success. Catalyst; 2011. 
  • Holt K. Gender balance in scientific conference (Australia). 2014. Available from: 
  • Lincoln AE, Pincus S, Bandows Koster J, Leboy PS. The Matilda Effect in science: Awards and prizes in the US, 1990s and 2000s. Soc Stud Sci. 2012 Apr;42(2):307–20. 
  • Moss-Racusin CA, Dovidio JF, Brescoll VL, Graham MJ, Handelsman J. Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012;109(41):16474–9. 
  • Noland M, Moran T, Kotschwar B. Is gender diversity profitable? Evidence from a global survey. Vols. 16–3. Washington DC: Peterson Institute for International Economics; 2016. p. 35. 
  • Professionals Australia. All talk: Gap between policy and practice a key obstacle to gender equity in STEM. 2018. 
  • Schneider J, Eckl V. The difference makes the difference: Team diversity and innovation. Vol. III, OECD Blue Sky. Ghent, Belgium; 2016. 
  • Science in Australia Gender Equity, 2019, Available from:
  • Weir, P., Leach, J., Gamble, J., and Creedy, D., 2014, Twenty-First Century Minerva: Are there career impacts for women who receive a “Women in Science” Fellowship?, International Journal of Gender, Science and Technology, 6:2
  • Women’s Leadership Institute Australia. Women for media report. 2016. Available from: ee1ce5_eeff63af2a2848478ddd7c2ce89f5555.pdf 

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Major funding support

Australian Research Council