What’s Driving the Industry-Wide Gender Chasm?

By Alice Duthie
on 11 September 2023

The Australian Government’s STEM Equity Monitor shows that more young women are entering STEM subjects in Year 12 than ever before. Yet, more than 8 in every 10 STEM employees are male. Here, Simone Thomassen, Packaging Projects Manager of Ego Pharmaceuticals, reports on how we can work to overcome institutionalised sexism.

What’s driving the industry-wide gender chasm? It boils down to the *incorrect* mentality that women don’t have the strength to lead.

At Ego, there’s female leadership throughout the organisation. From the co-founder, Rae Oppenheim, to her daughter-in-law and current Scientific and Operations Director, Dr. Jane Oppenheim, Ego has consistently prioritised people based on merit, not gender, and that’s resulted in an equal gender split at Ego in Australia.

As soon as I step out of those factory doors, I am reminded how different the outside world can be.  

Even in 2023, at industry events people are still looking for my male work colleagues. I started my career in STEM in the 90s when males dominated in the sector. Over time, female representation is slowly increasing, but we’re still a long way off equality. That’s a problem.

As a sector, we need to override the mentality that women aren’t good enough and be vocal about why women deserve a seat at the table. We are strong, we are bold, and we are leaders.

My Senior Manager, Dr Jane Oppenheim, is a fearless leader, and I think that’s partly why Ego is unique. We need more STEM workplaces with female leadership from the top down. You can’t underestimate how influential that is – it undercuts the gender bias before it has a chance to begin.

How workplaces need to step up

We need to change the perceptions of the type of STEM leadership that future generations require. It starts with those leaders not just accepting gender expression but celebrating it.

I love my femininity. I’ve worn tulle to work before – and why shouldn’t I? It shouldn’t take away from my capabilities. Not everyone will want to wear tulle, and that’s fine too. It’s about creating an environment where however you want to express your gender, you can.  

We need more STEM-based workplaces, and the leaders running them, to actively promote equality, empathy, and individualism so that the people that make up the workplace are empowered to thrive.

tech team gender inequality

How we can support the growing number of female STEM students in finding meaningful employment

I like to first focus on the unique strengths that each individual has. What gives them that sense of satisfaction? For some, it’ll be conducting in-depth research, for others it may be hands-on product development, and for other people – like myself – it’s creating opportunities for the team to flourish.

For us at Ego, our relationship with universities is so important. It’s one of the ways that we directly support women to transition from the world of studies to the workplace. That real-life experience in a gender-balanced STEM workplace is integral for them to understand their own strengths and find a career path that complements them.

The next question is how you encourage that long-term female retention. At its heart, Ego is a family-run business, and you can see those family values echoed across the organisation. Creating a nurturing environment where people feel valued is how we encourage people to grow. That environment means that female STEM students not only choose a career in STEM, but they also choose to remain in STEM workplaces long-term.

tech student gender inequality

How I overcame institutionalised sexism to succeed

Before I found Ego, it was finding the confidence to resist the pressure to be that old-school type of ‘masculine’, like giving those super firm handshakes, being afraid to show emotion or expressing your femininity. It felt like I wasn’t being authentic to not only myself, but also my female staff that I was leading.

It takes boldness to not give in to the norm, but the more I brought myself to work, the greater success I had. For me, that was leading with empathy, kindness, and support.

I’m now very lucky to be surrounded by incredible female leaders. We all lead in our own ways, but that representation means you’re seen based on your merits, not your gender.

In return, I use my platform to create more opportunities for the next generation in the hope that one day, more STEM workplaces will have the same ratio of men to women as we see everyday in the wider world.  

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