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Why is higher education’s role in achieving gender equality fundamental to Australian innovation and entrepreneurship?

Alexandra Zinovyeva

Australian universities are continually faced
with the changing needs of government, industry and community. The higher education
sector has a key role in creating a relevant and responsive workforce which is
able to meet, if not subvert, global challenges. In doing so, universities have
a responsibility to remove the gender barriers faced by aspiring researchers,
innovators and entrepreneurs. Not only does this recognise basic human rights,
it improves our ability to develop organisational sustainability and national/
global economic growth. Diversity is vital for the future of Australian
innovation and it plays a key role in the development of entrepreneurship-based
solutions to address current international issues.

In Australia, a recent shift of Federal
research dollars has occurred from the humanities to engineering and medicine.
This signals the Commonwealth Government’s desire to set the broad research
agenda and occurs at a time when both STEM, and increasing more women into STEM,
are a cross-sectoral focus. Increasingly, we are seeing more examples of
industry partnerships with universities that are delivering the desired results;
a critical platform for the higher education sector in the quest for
demonstrating relevance to achieve sustainability. The successful partnerships
are a result of systematic relationship building and monitoring, clarity from
the outset around expectations, and clear communication that is understood at
all levels within both organisations.

Diversity of thought is vital to keeping up
with the pace. By staying globally responsive to real world problems, research needs
to translate into practical applications which feed entrepreneurship. ECU is
committed to growing strategic partnerships with industry to ensure all students
are work-ready. In December 2017, ECU’s Joondalup campus was announced as the
location of the Western Australian Government’s first Innovation Hub. The
Western Australian Node of the Federally-funded, industry-led AustCyber
organisation will be located at the Hub, supporting growth of local cyber
security industry driven by ECU’s expertise as a world leader in cyber security
research.  Also in 2017, ECU became one
of only two designated Academic Centres of Excellence in Australia, receiving
$900,000 from the Commonwealth Government to support students taking up studies
and research in cyber security. Initiatives such as these will drive the
creation of a diverse workforce capable of supporting cyber security in a
digital era.

The University has also visibly made good progress towards achieving real
change in equality through a range of initiatives in the past two years. This
included providing a supportive network for women and gender diverse people, achieving
greater visibility of female role models in STEM, the recruitment of real male
champions for gender equality, and targeted actions which support junior female
researchers. From ‘buddy’ programs that provide a forum
for shared experiences to formalised sponsorship and mentorship programs, all
aspects of the career journey are being considered. The threat of typical ‘exit
points’ for women in their careers (i.e. parental leave is still dominated by
women) needs to be addressed. For return-to-work parents, re-entry and re-adjustment
strategies are necessary in ensuring the growth and retention of existing talent
and potentially are yet to be realised. 

It is vital that women receive the sponsorship
they need to progress their education, careers and enterprises with the
potential grow and build on their knowledge base.[1] Target areas including
STEM where gender disparity is felt the most, need to be a key area of focus
for growth in innovation. According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA),
data continues to show women dominating Health Care and Social Assistance and
Education and Training. While these are important areas of work, deeply
embedded stereotypes are still inherent in our community and the status quo
needs to be challenged more aggressively.[2][1]
It’s unacceptable and abhorrent, that in 2018, there’s still a 14.6% gender pay
gap equating to $17,500, which is a significant disincentive to women entering
or remaining in STEM professions. Similarly, the lack of advancement is also
forcing women out of STEM careers; and at a time that Australia needs to best
and the brightest in management, leadership and senior STEM roles.[3][2]
In the 2018 STEM Professional Survey Report, a “third of female engineers aged
between 25 and 35 said they were intending to leave their profession in the
next five years”.[3][3]

ECU also strives to make a real difference in awareness raising and
education within society. The University has numerous engagement activities in
place to ensure male-dominated STEM-based subjects are made visible and
accessible to female high school students during their formative years. One such program is the Girls’ Programming Network at ECU. This
program aims to not only gauge the interest of young female students in coding
and software development, but also enhance the profile of female industry
partners who are then enabled to mentor and inspire girls (as well as boys)
into innovation-led careers. As participants in the first tranche of the Australian
Pilot of the Athena SWAN Charter hosted by the Science in Gender Equity
initiative (SAGE)
, ECU is fully committed to redressing the barriers women
and gender diverse groups’ face in academia and research where innovation

While on a national scale, Australia is now
making efforts to redress gender stereotyping, there needs to be a greater
focus on the critical impact that diversity has on entrepreneurship and
innovation, as existing approaches are not working fast enough. Decades of research show that diverse
groups are more innovative than homogeneous ones as they provide different
viewpoints.[4][4] For
Australia to perform on the global stage for innovation, it needs to bring its entire
pool of talent to the table. Millennials
(and no doubt future generations) have very different drivers for success in
comparison to their predecessors. Rather than security and stability, this
generation is driven by professional development, rapid career progression and
inclusive environments.[6][5]
Universities must incubate the talents of this generation so they ultimately
can realise the full breadth of their ability.

Any system that generates innovation
and the potential for entrepreneurship and collaboration requires the equal
participation of all genders. This must be realised across not simply the
education sector but also broader communities and industry. The role of external engagement
and robust and structured relationship management are vital and will significantly
influence Australia’s ability to ensure an economy that flourishes.[6][6] Efforts
to achieve gender parity as part of this process should not be viewed as a cost
but as an opportunity.[7][7]
By investing in greater avenues for women and gender diverse people to engage
in entrepreneurship, and progress in their careers at the same pace as men, we
will see tremendous strides in our ability to innovate.P


  1. Australian female
    entrepreneurs, they have the why, now they need the how – virgin.com
  2. WGEA media release – 2 August
    2016: Stereotypes about women’s work, men’s work threaten innovation
  3. Study Professionals Australia releases
    Women in STEM Report (2018)
  4. How Diversity Makes Us Smarter
    (article in Scientific American, 2014)
  5. Why is innovation increasingly
    becoming critical to entrepreneurship, July 2017 – entrepreneur.com
  6. Boosting High-Impact Entrepreneurship
    in Australia. Report (2015)
  7. The economic benefits of gender parity
    (Article in Stanford Social Innovation Review March 8, 2016)

[1] WGEA media release – 2 August 2016: Stereotypes about women’s work,
men’s work threaten innovation

[2] https://thenewdaily.com.au/money/work/2018/09/23/women-stem-pay-gap-study/


[3] http://www.professionalsaustralia.org.au/professional-women/wp-content/uploads/sites/48/2018/08/2018-Women-in-STEM-Survey-Report_web.pdf

[4] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-diversity-makes-us-smarter/

[5] Why is innovation increasingly becoming critical to
entrepreneurship, July 2017 – entrepreneur.com

[6] https://www.chiefscientist.gov.au/2015/10/media-release-building-a-culture-of-entrepreneurship/

[7] http://www.mckinsey.com/mgi/overview/in-the-news/the-economic-benefits-of-gender-parity

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