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Here’s how to achieve diversity in STEM – and why it matters

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To date, more than 10 million patients worldwide have benefited from the diagnostic tests for cancer and infectious diseases developed by Cicada Innovations incubatee, SpeedDx.

In Australia, more than 80% of laboratories also use at least one SpeedDx test to report patient samples.

And when COVID-19 hit, the company also manufactured and supplied COVID-19 tests to the US, while ramping up production so they could be made in Australia.

Not bad for an Aussie startup founded after the founders were fired!

In fact, SpeeDx founders Adjunct Professor Alison Todd and Dr Elisa Mokany were awarded the 2022 Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation last week, placing them among a growing cohort of women who are conquering the opportunities in STEM.

And that makes the world a lot better.

I am confident that our science and technology agenda will be greatly enhanced when Australians from all parts of the community are given the opportunity to contribute.

As recently appointed chair of the Pathway to Diversity in STEM Reviewbelow are the ways we will find ways to improve diversity and increase women’s participation in Australia’s STEM sectors.

Long-term approach

Changing the representation of historically underrepresented groups requires programs that span decades, not programs that are only implemented from year to year.

Think of a kid’s trajectory in elementary school who could end up as the next Mrs. Todd or Mrs. Mokany.

If this child benefits from a STEM program in elementary school, it will be another six years before they finish high school. If they want to study computer science, engineering or medicine, that’s another three to seven years of tertiary and on-the-job training.

Programs should therefore be structured to support this person’s STEM aspirations from childhood through adulthood, so that they are not lost to STEM at any point in the journey.

It takes a very long time for cultural and structural changes to take place in society and in organizations, and only then do we see the impact of those changes flowing through. Programs should be structured accordingly.

It’s more than just sex

It is critical to encourage more women in STEM.

According to the government most recent STEM equity monitorwomen make up only 36 percent of university STEM course enrollments, 16% of vocational STEM course enrollments, and 27% of the workforce across all STEM industries.

Only 23% of senior management and 8% of CEOs in STEM-qualified industries are women, while women still earn an average of 18 percent less than men across all STEM industries.

But historically underrepresented groups go beyond just gender.

For example, we urgently need to articulate what we consider a STEM career in the context of First Nations experience, participation, and knowledge.

New migrants, people in regional areas and people with disabilities – a group that comprises about one in six Australians – also need to be better represented in STEM if we are to see businesses emerge that cater to the very unique needs of these groups.

This requires addressing cultural and structural barriers, broadening existing programs and determining how investment in science and innovation can be more inclusive of underrepresented groups.

A team performance

Culture drives behavior, and behavior drives culture.

So all parts of society, government, industry, education and community will need to be committed to this work in the long run if we are to drive the cultural change required to create dozens of additional SpeedDx’s here in Australia.

This could open the door to hundreds or even thousands of other world-changing innovations making their way from classrooms to laboratories and then into our homes and businesses, where they have the greatest impact.

And each of us will benefit from that scenario!

READ NOW: Cicada Innovations boss Sally-Ann Williams leads government review to improve STEM diversity

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