By Sue White

When Bronwyn Evans, the chief executive officer of Engineers Australia, started her career 40 years ago, women made up about 3 per cent of the field. Today, 11 per cent of Australia’s engineers are women, a figure that climbs to 16 per cent when looking across the gender split across all STEM roles.

“We’ve made some progress, but we haven’t made anywhere near enough,” says Evans.

The problem deepens when considering STEM leadership: only an estimated 3 per cent are women. “It’s just not good enough,” says Evans

Bronwyn Evans says the gender imbalance in STEM leadership roles is not good enough.

She believes structural issues are still at play. She says the focus on outreach in schools must be maintained, that role models must be visible, and peer networks for women in STEM have to be supported.

Through her board position with Women in Leadership Development (WILD), Evans is also ensuring more women develop the skills and networks essential for board and governance positions.

She was recently on the selection committee for WILD’s 2022 program. Over the next three years, participants will complete recognised governance training, attend leadership retreats and contribute to board meetings for a STEM-related company to gain mentorship and first-hand experience. One hundred and twenty women applied for the 25 available spots.

“I was struck by how much amazing talent is available to us. We’ve got an amazing group I would put in any senior role,” Evans says.

One successful applicant was Liz Williams, co-founder and CEO of start-up Hemideina. The company is developing a wireless implant device for treating hearing loss and, like many women in STEM, Williams benefited from visible role models while she was at school.

“I had a great chemistry teacher at secondary school who ignited my excitement,” Williams says.

A 50:50 gender balance in her university studies and the presence of inspiring female leaders during her PhD studies at Cambridge University meant it wasn’t until Williams advanced beyond graduate roles that the gender imbalance in STEM became noticeable.

“It was definitely when I started climbing the ladder – being given jobs that men didn’t want to do, particularly administrative and operational jobs. These were jobs that were hard to make a promotion case out of but were necessary for the success of the team,” says Williams.

“There are huge double standards for women. You have to prove yourself much more and work twice as hard [as men]. Once in a leadership position, that scrutiny is especially more biased, as we’ve seen from infamous cases like Christine Holgate and Julia Gillard. Many of the structures have been set up for male-dominated industries, and that historic and systemic structuring hasn’t changed,” Williams says.

Evans says these systemic structures go a long way to explaining why women are not better represented on boards.

The WILD program founders and the Medical Research Commercialisation Fund (MRCF) completed a successful pilot program in 2019 and last year received more than $1 million from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s Office for Women, partly to tackle this issue.

“Some of it is [about being] part of a network because that’s how a lot of the board roles come about … [Plus] you need to have governance education – that’s almost now becoming a prerequisite,” Evans says.

Williams says that by giving her the AICD directors course qualification and recognition of her leadership skills, the WILD program will also help her overcome the bias female entrepreneurs face when raising capital.

“I’m here alongside some very inspiring and talented women. We can all relate to the barriers we face, and we can introduce each other to people within our networks to support each other’s career goals,” she says.