We offer insights into approaches to enhance diversity and inclusion at multiple levels in STEM.
Diversity is often viewed only through a gendered lens but there is much more to diversity than gender. There are numerous articles and studies on how enhancing diversity leads to better decision making and is no longer just a moral imperative but also a business imperative. Other forms of diversity include age, cultural identity, sexual orientation, and nationality which in turn lead to diversity of thoughts, experiences, and perspectives.
Given it is the most focussed on—let’s look at gender diversity first particularly from a STEM focus (STEM is Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). There is a prediction nearly 70 per cent of jobs in the future will depend on STEM skills.
Australia, like most countries in the world, has a gender balanced population of nearly 50:50. Yet, the number of women who have had a STEM education is merely 16 per cent. Why do these numbers remain so poor among women? Numerous factors emerge—gendered upbringing, exposure to gendered toys and books, low motivation, and a perceived lack of STEM skills (even though it has been proven repeatedly that girls can do Mathematics as well as or even better than boys). The few girls who do make it into a STEM career often do not climb the professional ladder. Reasons for this include workplace bias, lack of consideration for career interruptions, and lack of role models.
Australia now has numerous initiatives in place to address these gender-based problems in STEM. Some of these include the Science and Gender Equity Australia (SAGE), Women in STEM Decadal Plan, Superstars of STEM, and Male Champions of Change. These initiatives focus on “fixing the system” rather than “fixing the women”. Unique approaches include STEM Women which is a database that allows you to find suitable women speakers, board/committee members, and mentors—all filtered by expertise.
Inclusion is a key piece to this puzzle and ensures there is a sense of belonging in the workforce and people feel valued and respected. There are an array of simple actions to enhance inclusion: from the language that is used (pronouns such as he/she/they is a key example), meeting times, flexible work, and creating a safe work environment for all people. Be it diversity or inclusion—to see true change, these need to be driven from the top with leaders held accountable.
While all of this might seem overwhelming there are specific things that you can action within your own team. Recruitment is key and while we are always tempted to recruit carbon copies of ourselves, this certainly does not enhance diversity or drive innovation in the long run.
Looking at our own biases and making sure we are aware of them is a good start as is looking at the language we use in advertising. We need to take unique career paths and career interruptions into account while shortlisting. Targets are helpful and keep our choices in check. Other ways to enhance inclusion comprise keeping communication lines open, offering flexible work practices, and acknowledging and crediting team member’s success.
Of course, we do not always have to rely on our own team to derive the benefits of a diverse workforce. Diversity can also be promoted through interdisciplinary collaboration, which significantly boosts the perspectives present and may lead to more considered decisions.
One key example is technology for the future. Field specific innovations might be critical to result in breakthroughs, but it is collaboration across disciplines that will result in successful commercialisation and consumer uptake of products. The authors are involved in a number of collaborative projects, developing sensors for health and wellbeing applications. The interdisciplinary teams for these projects bring together expertise in engineering, medical science, chemistry, industrial design, human centred design, and manufacturing.
In order to create common ground between disciplines and ensure that everyone has an equal voice, we start from an understanding that collaboration is a learned skill—like a muscle it requires practice over time. We provide the team with opportunities to practice collaboration through design thinking challenges that build trust and enable the formation of common languages. Asking a colleague to articulate the current challenge from the perspective of another team member is a useful approach to encouraging inter-professional empathy and inclusion.
We intentionally build in opportunities for experts to collaborate at every step of a project. Creatives are involved in engineering discussions and engineers provide input to creative tasks. Breaking down perceived silos about who is allowed to contribute to discussions is a meaningful step towards inclusion and provides a diversity of perspectives. This diversity of thought is critical when dealing with today’s complex problems that cannot be addressed from one vantage point alone.
Professor Madhu Bhaskaran is an electronics engineer and innovator who has won national and international awards for her research in stretchable skin like electronics. She also has a keen passion for gender equity and inclusion and has contributed her expertise to many national initiatives in Australia.
Dr Leah Heiss is an award-winning designer and RMIT researcher who has brought human centred design to technologies for hearing loss, diabetes and pre-diabetes, cardiovascular disease, gut disease and loneliness. Her wearable technologies include hearing aids, jewellery to administer insulin and a cardiac monitor necklace.
Copyright © 2020 Singapore Institute of Management