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System stems scientific growth

7 April 2016

We need more people with training in STEM areas if we are to keep up with the progress of modern society, writes Professor Nalini Joshi.

Whether they are girls or boys, children have an in-built liking and skill for the patterns of mathematics and science. But by the time they reach senior high school in Australia, that innate affinity and skill have all but seeped away. Whether it is the absence of confident, qualified teachers or principals who restrict subject choices because they want to optimise the school’s financial or ATAR outcomes, the numbers studying advanced and intermediate maths has been declining for over two decades with the numbers are much worse for female students.

Why should we care?

A study involving a large cohort of students in the US showed that years of mathematics instruction at high school was a significant predictor of performance across all science subjects at university. At the University of Sydney, we have analysed the results of our students and found that undertaking at least 2-unit (or ­intermediate) maths at high school markedly increases the chances of passing science in first year at university. Without such a level of mathematical education, students struggle to understand any argument that depends on understanding changes in data, an essential skill for the modern world.

At a time when the progress of modern society is riding on fast growing, often disruptive innovation, we need more people with training in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) areas. On the same day that I participated in a forum of innovators, entrepreneurs and researchers in Brisbane held by Assistant Science Minister Karen Andrews, the Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel released a report “Australia’s STEM Workforce”, which stressed the need for qualified people not only to work in the university and research realms but also to go into business.

Compare this to Australia’s woeful place as 33rd out of 40 by the OECD when ranked by the proportion of graduates in science and engineering fields. The Chief Scientist’s report also noted that only 16 per cent of STEM-­qualified people are women and they earn significantly less than men. By letting our society discourage female participation in mathematics, we throw away the opportunity for half of our population to become STEM qualified and to create and contribute their best ideas.

Supporting females in STEM

To turn this around, the 10-year plan developed by the ­National Committee for Mathematical Sciences, has recommended universities reintroduce at least Year 12 intermediate mathematics subjects as prerequisites for bachelors degrees in science, engineering and commerce. In February, the University of Sydney announced that from 2019 it will be the first university in NSW to require Year 12 students to have completed at least 2-unit mathematics for 62 of its courses.

The next step is to encourage and keep female students and researchers in the STEM career pathway. While 56 per cent of undergraduates and 50 per cent of PhD students in the natural and physical sciences are female, the proportions at senior levels are dramatically different. Increasing proportions of female researchers entering the pipe­line have led to modest increases in the middle rungs, but the proportions at the top end have risen by only about 1 per cent per annum over the past two decades.

Today, of the professors of mathematical sciences in Australia, only 9 per cent are women. In the natural and physical sciences, that figure is 14 per cent. In this respect, Australia is frozen in time. To throw away the opportunity to harness the huge intelligence, ­prodigious drive and high-level education of the females already in the research workforce is like going back to the 1950s. At that time, women like Ruby Payne-Scott — one of the inventors of radio astronomy — were pushed out of the workforce, because until the amendment of the Public ­Service Act in 1966, scientifically inclined, prodigiously talented women were expected to resign as soon as they were married.

The push now is subtler. No matter how well-meaning the government or institutional policies are, they do not ask for reflection and change from individuals embedded in the research culture, unless appalling behaviour comes to light.

To overcome this problem, the Australian Academy of Science and the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering have joined together to mount a two-year pilot of the Athena SWAN program through the ­Science in Australia Gender ­Equity (SAGE) initiative.

The initial reaction has been wonderful: 32 employer organisations have signed up to participate in the pilot, consisting of 25 universities, five medical research institutes and two publicly funded research agencies. The Athena SWAN evaluations in Britain tell us that the ­outcomes will encourage and improve the working life of everyone. Imagine if we could encourage and keep these talented people. Imagine a doubling of our Nobel prize winners. Imagine a room full of female mathematics professors.


Professor Nalini Joshi is the Georgina Sweet Australian Laureate Fellow from the School of Mathematics and Statistics. This article was first published in The Australian. Read the original article.