In March, I had the unique honour of being invited to attend the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, in New York, and take part in a panel discussion looking at access to STEM education and careers for women and girls, throughout New Zealand and the Pacific Islands.
Having spent the better part of my career in "male dominated" fields, the issue of female representation in STEM industries is one I'm incredibly passionate about – and over the years, I've seen a significant and positive shift take place.
At a workplace level, the introduction of quotas and targets (both industry and company-based), blind recruitment processes, flexible working and inclusive job descriptions, have seen the sector take a number of steps in the right direction in terms of female representation.
One of the best things to have come from these initiatives has been the fact that they have opened up a much broader conversation around inclusion and diversity in STEM – identifying a number of areas for further development.
Take flexible working as an example. Increasingly, organisations are offering flexible working hours to all staff, however, these arrangements are still much more commonly considered to be the domain of working mums. In fact, an Australian study into the issue (funded by Chief Executive Women) showed that men who had trialled flexible working arrangements reported feeling a lack of senior support, negative views of working flexibly held by peers and management, and a loss of opportunities for career progression.
It can be difficult for anyone to actively parent while juggling the demands of full-time work. So why, then, are initiatives like flexible working – which make this balance more achievable – seen as respectable and feasible options for women, but less so for men?
Flexible hours shouldn't be an issue of gender, and the challenge I would issue to New Zealand employers is to actively overturn the ingrained (and inherently negative) attitudes that turn it into one. In doing so, we'll create a more inclusive environment for all staff, enabling everyone, including women, to more actively participate in work and home life.
Access to education
I do believe, however, if we are to ever truly achieve equal gender representation in STEM, that it is the matter of access to education which has to be one of our primary areas of focus.
There's a wealth of research available that demonstrates the importance of early access to education as one of the biggest single influences on the path people choose later in life. Before our girls can ever grow up to have a career in STEM, we need to be actively fostering their interest in these subjects to begin with.
So, we have an important role as parents, to actively create opportunities for our children, girls and boys, to learn about and develop a passion for STEM subjects before they start school – so they can challenge and break these gender stereotypes from the outset.
Fortunately, in New Zealand, there are a number of brilliant individuals and organisations that are making this easier and easier to do. Michelle Dickinson is one example – with the Nanogirl Labs Roadshow, and her book The Kitchen Science Cookbook. So is the Tauranga STEM Festival – an annual collaborative effort between the University of Waikato and the Tauranga District Council.
Beyond my role on the panel, the UN conference was also a chance to hear from a group of the world's most inspirational female leaders, talking to a broad range of issues relating to the global movement for gender equality – from human trafficking to social entrepreneurship; voting rights to cyber violence.
When framed against some of these "bigger" and more confronting issues, the importance of girls having equal opportunities to learn maths (for example) may seem to pale into insignificance. But at their core, these issues all represent the same fundamental push for gender equality – and as such, are all incredibly important parts of the conversation.
Although there is no "silver bullet" to solving the issue of gender representation in STEM, it will be a combination of these broader initiatives, coupled with meaningful targeted ones that will get us closer to our goal. Any step that we can take now, any boundary that we can shift, is one that the next generation won't have to tackle – so they can build on our successes and take the next step instead.
Globally, and here in New Zealand, there's no doubt there's still a long way to go but, overwhelmingly, I came away from New York with the sense that New Zealanders should be immensely proud of where we stand on these issues, the progress we've already made, and the commitment we share to furthering the cause.
- Darryl-Lee Wendelborn is the managing director of Beca NZ.