Australia is seeking to become an innovation nation, yet industry advocates insist a lack of workforce diversity is creating obstacles. Manufacturers’ Monthly reports.
Diversity is the compass for innovation, according to a champion for gender equality in the workplace.
Keely Quinn, Canberra division manager for Engineers Australia, has highlighted what she calls a “stark disconnect” between the country’s industrial and academic streams.
Further still, she says this disparity is directly affecting the number of young female engineers entering the workplace and also a large amount of experienced women who are leaving the sector.
According to a report by the Office of the Chief Scientist, less than one-fifth (16 per cent) of Australians qualified in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are female.
The research also showed that seven per cent of engineers in Australia are women. This was explained partly by women taking maternity leave not returning to the industry.
“We only have six per cent of young women studying the right subjects,” according to Quinn, who addressed the issue at Autodesk University conference in Sydney.
“We train these women and, at about the age of 30 to 35, they leave the workforce and do not come back to the profession after maternity leave.”
The World Economic Forum’s global innovation index ranks Australia 23rd and, although the nation is ranked eighth for its quality of research, it is bottom of the pile of OECD countries for commercialisation.
“At Engineers Australia, we have seen a very large gap between industry and our universities,” Quinn continued. “We really have a problem with our students, particularly in university, not gaining any kind of access into industry, which is needed for their coursework.
“What they are also missing is a critical understanding of how businesses work, so if these young people are our future innovators and are going to come up with the next big ideas, with no access to business and industry, how do they know what problems to solve?
“This disconnect is really stark. When we talk about how we are doing in terms of collaboration in higher education, we have a problem of diversity in the engineering field.”
The Male Champions of Change for STEM was established in 2016 to lead and influence change in women’s representation in STEM subjects.
Speaking at last year’s event, acting minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Michaelia Cash, said that STEM knowledge is vital to Australia’s economy.
“We know that women are still under-represented in many areas of science, technology, engineering and maths,” she said. “We need to harness the full potential of women, in order to reach our innovation capacity as a country.”
An “infrastructure boom” in places like Sydney will highlight a shortage of experienced engineers over the next few years, according to Quinn, who says that Australia is not utilising its female and international workforce.
She also says that finding engineering roles for women returning to the workforce is vital for inspiring a new generation of female workers.
“We need to remember that we can’t be what we can’t see,” she said. “So, if we don’t have females staying in the profession and moving into management and leadership roles, those young girls out there can’t see a reason to move into engineering.
“All of those people with international experience, they are not working with us. It seems we are missing out on some expertise that could well bring on the next wave of digital disruption.
“Diversity is the compass of innovation – it leads and directs their innovation. There have been a number for studies that show that diversity in teams leads to better outcomes and that having one woman [in the team] isn’t enough,” she added.
Women in welding
The evolution and introduction of new technology has seen an upturn in the number of female welders, according to Geoff Crittenden, CEO for the Welding Technology Institute of Australia (WTIA).
WTIA is planning to introduce advanced welder training centres based on the use of modern welding machines and simulators to train welders to the standard required to be globally competitive.
In addition, Crittenden says there is room to grow high-value welding roles for the female workforce.
He says that some of the top welders in the country are women and they are encouraging a much greater openness for women working in broader occupations.
“In terms of what’s happening in the workforce, women make great welders,” Crittenden said. “I have been in fabrication shops around the country where at least half of the welders are women.
“It is not necessarily a male-dominated industry anymore and, with the introduction of new equipment – which means the industry is not as taxing as it used to be – we are seeing a significant increase in the number of women in welding.”
At CSR Limited, a major Australian industrial manufacturer, its team has worked to establish a diverse working environment and was recognised at last year’s Women in Industry Awards, held in Melbourne, where many of its female workforce were nominated for various categories.
Paola Tornatore, CSR’s group HR manager, was nominated for excellence in manufacturing. Speaking with Manufacturers’ Monthly she explained why employee coaching could boost manufacturing’s return-to-industry rate for established career women.
“From our research, we know that teams that are more diverse are the ones that are going to create more diverse thinking, which leads to better performance,” she said.
“In the manufacturing industry, companies are really trying to improve the prevalence of the female workforce. There is, however, no easy solution.
“There is no hard or fast way to do it but there are Australian companies out there which are consciously trying to attract and retain female workers.”
Tornatore believes the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) sector in manufacturing is a good place to start, including food and pharmaceutical plants where the worker environment is more appealing among the otherwise male-dominated sectors.
“For those women who leave the industry to spend time with their families, companies really need to look at how they can make it easier on the woman to continue her career,” she continued.
“I am not necessarily suggesting a financial commitment, but rather flexibility around their position so that gives more women the chance to join or re-join an organisation.
“Some form of coaching or mentor scheme would give women a chance to express ideas and prepare for future career opportunities.”
Reasons for optimism
Almost half of Australian businesses are innovating, according to a new industry report, which examines the strength of high-growth firms.
The Australian Innovation System Report, which was released last month by the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, expresses that Australian companies tend to specialise in modifying innovations introduced by other domestic firms.
However, it goes on to explain that new-to-market innovations are not nearly as common and that Australia ranks in the bottom half of the OECD for collaboration and innovation.
As an advocate for engineering, Quinn is optimistic about the future. However, she insists there are some serious questions that need to be asked around the issue of diversity before Australia’s innovators are able to flourish.
“Every week, I learn something new and I am constantly amazed at engineers and how humble they are. They do so much for our society,” she said.
“The level of innovation and disruption feels like it is just constantly moving and we cannot do much about that.
“The question is whether we, as an Australian industry, are ready for that innovation and change. I ask the question because I don’t necessarily think that we are.”