Speech by The Hon Kate Ellis MP

The International Conference for Women Engineers and Scientists

Location: Adelaide Convention Centre, South Australia

I also would like to welcome the delegates from professional organisations in science and engineering from around Australia, Canada, France, Japan, Korea, the State of Kuwait, Malaysia, New Zealand, the United States and United Kingdom, and representatives from UNESCO.

I am very pleased to be here with you all today to speak at the opening session of the International Conference for Women Engineers and Scientists in Adelaide.

Today is about recognising the contributions of our female scientists and engineers, as well as considering the opportunities and challenges that remain for women in these sectors.

There are some truly remarkable women here today – a testament to what is being achieved by women in science and engineering across the world (here I acknowledge in particular – Dame Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Dr. Maria Jesus Prieto-Laffargue and Professor Elizabeth Taylor).

I’d also like to acknowledge those women who have made remarkable contributions to science and engineering, but whose names we don’t know because they have been overlooked and undervalued – or those women who haven’t made contributions, but could have if they had seen a role for themselves.

This is the tragic dichotomy that we see when we talk about women in science and engineering: we have so much to celebrate, so many remarkable achievements to recognise; but we know that women in this sector do not have an easy road to success or for many reasons do not get to experience career success at all. We must give women in science and engineering a higher profile – so that they can continue to inspire others.

That is why I am exceedingly grateful that you are all here today – representing leadership, innovation, and a drive to ensure a sustainable future – but also to network, to support each other’s achievements and to map a course for women’s participation in these vital sectors, now and in years to come.

Earlier this year, I attended the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York.

The theme of that meeting was the access and participation of women and girls in education, training, science and technology.

The Commission highlighted not only the importance of women to science and technology – but also the importance of science and technology to billions of women around the world.

We know that science and technology are at the front line of addressing the issues impacting women and girls, particularly in developing countries.

In the most fragile and vulnerable corners of our world, women have an enormous stake in the outcomes of scientific and engineering endeavour.

It was particularly important that we were able to recognise and discuss the relationship between women and science and technology in such an important forum.

In the context of a world grappling with significant issues like climate change, global food and fuel crises, we are dependent on you – and we are indebted to you for your work – so I am especially pleased to be here today to say: thank you.

The Commission on the Status of Women recognised that we have fantastic, energetic women working in the sciences and engineering in this country and around the World.

Of course, you are aware that, with all of your talent, there is a problem with women in science and engineering.

And that problem is this: there simply are not enough of you.

There are not enough women accessing education in science and engineering.

There are not enough women being employed in the sector.

And when women are employed in the sector, their experiences are not the same as their male counterparts.

Here in Australia, we know that women are significantly under-represented in all levels of science, engineering and technology employment – constituting just 22.3 per cent of full-time professionals in the field of design, engineering, science and transport.

We also know that when employed in these sectors, women tend to be employed part time and at lower pay-grades and classifications.

It is fair to say that women’s representation in these fields simply must be improved.

It is also important to note that, not only must we increase the representation of women in these sectors, we must also ensure that they have a workplace that is fair and free of discrimination.

The Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers Australia (APESMA) last year produced a report about the experience of women in the science, engineering, and other technical professions.

The survey demonstrated that cultural issues are still a real barrier to progression and pay equity in these sectors.

Nearly 70 per cent of respondents said that taking maternity/parental leave – including unpaid leave – was likely to be detrimental to their career, despite legally having access to these provisions.

Disturbingly, nearly 40 per cent of respondents stated that they had been bullied and 38 per cent discriminated against in the course of their employment.

Nearly 20 per cent reported that they had been sexually harassed – although only one fifth of those had reported the incident through official channels.

Importantly for the issue of increasing the number of women in these sectors, nearly one quarter of respondents expected that they would leave their profession within five years.

In spite of these setbacks, women engineers and scientists have excelled in demonstrating their intelligence, energy and commitment with remarkable innovations, successful entrepreneurship and visionary leadership.

Women’s workforce experience, their very right to participate fully and fairly in the workforce, is a great passion of mine, as well as a fundamental feature of the Australian Government’s agenda.

We know that gender equality in the workplace is not only important in terms of broadening opportunities for women, it is critical to national productivity, innovation and international competitiveness.

Nationally and internationally, we simply cannot afford to ignore such a significant component of our workforce, intellect and creativity.

One of the important outcomes of the UN Commission earlier this year was that we needed to encourage employers and research funding agencies to do their share in establishing flexible and non-discriminatory work policies and arrangements for both women and men.

In May, I chaired a roundtable of scientific bodies, research funders and employers of engineers and scientists to discuss the issue of the under-representation of women in their sectors.

It seemed to me that there was wide recognition that there is a problem. And there was certainly some enthusiasm to try and address it.

But there were not a lot of easy answers for improving gender equality in these key sectors.

We need to have some strong data about where things are going wrong. We need to know what works.

That is why I am very proud to be progressing reforms to the Agency responsible for supporting businesses to achieve gender equality in this country, the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency.

These reforms will ensure that employers have the information, support and incentive to improve workplace outcomes for women.

Where previously businesses were required to establish and report on their workplace equity plans, programs and processes – we are now asking them to report on their outcomes.

This reflects one of the most innovative aspects of these reforms: the new focus on measuring progress and developing industry benchmarks.

In the context of gender equality, knowing the characteristics of particular industry sectors is a critical lever for success.

It may not always make sense to consider strategies and benchmarks in the banking industry for the sectors you find yourselves working in such as mining and resources.

We need sound and comparable data to know what is working, and where.

With a doubling of its funding base, the Agency will now be properly resourced to give all organisations – but, in particular, the ones that are struggling – the help they need to make improvements and realise the full benefits of gender equality.

No business will be left behind and no industry sector ignored.

The Australian Government is also improving women’s workforce participation through a record investment in child care affordability measures and the historic introduction of the Paid Parental Leave scheme. This Government is investing in skills, especially in your sector – to ensure that there are generations of women to follow after you.

We know that getting more women into your sector will change the culture. Research findings indicate that a critical mass of women in workplaces create more balanced workplace cultures that promote job satisfaction, productivity and employee retention.

So, we need more of you – and I’m sure with the high calibre of female role models here today, the next generation of women (and men) will be inspired to a career in science and engineering.

I would like to congratulate the host organisations, Engineers Australia and the International Network for Women Engineers and Scientists, and their volunteer committees for organising this conference. I wish all speakers and delegates every success