Why aren’t more Indigenous Australians involved in STEM professions?

STEM school classroom

According to Australia’s 2020 STEM Workforce Report, just one in 200 Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) people of working age have a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) degree, compared to one in 20 non-Indigenous working age people. Why aren’t more ATSI Australians involved in STEM professions?

Brunel’s Diversity and Inclusion Manager Sonya Liddle discusses the barriers faced by ATSI youth in pursuing these opportunities, and how educational institutions and organisations can work together to create clearer, more inclusive pathways to success.

Sonya Liddle
Manager, Diversity & Inclusion Services
Sonya Liddle

Unravelling the disconnect

Over the course of nearly 20 years in the Indigenous sector, I have been involved in many initiatives to create training outcomes and employment opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) candidates. It has been an incredibly rewarding career which has allowed me to contribute and observe a great deal of progress and change during that time. However, many significant gaps between the education, training, and employment outcomes of mainstream and ATSI candidates remain.
 
As the mother of an Aboriginal teenager, I am constantly confronted by the unconscious biases that still exist in our culture, especially when we start conversations around career pathways and post-high school jobs for ATSI students. Too often, I hear terms like ‘entry-level position’, ‘unskilled labour’ and ‘grassroots program’ – both within the education sector and my day-to-day role as a Diversity and Inclusion Manager. Please don’t misunderstand me – I have written and delivered initiatives around all of the aforementioned terms and they have been successful, capable and essential contributions toward generational change. However, that can’t be where it ends. Running alongside these initiatives, we need to be creating pathways which also connect ATSI jobseekers to skilled, mid-level, professional, and of course leadership roles.
 
To address this need, Brunel Australasia, WISE Professional Network and WAVE (We All Value Equality) have partnered to present an exciting new initiative: ATSI in STEM. A three-phase project, ATSI in STEM is all about creating pathways and opportunities which connect ATSI candidates to the many rewarding STEM careers which exist in Australia. It’s about building awareness within the framework of an ATSI youth’s experience – presenting STEM careers as a viable option for them.

 

Change starts with understanding

Phase One of the project saw us visit Year 11 and 12 ATSI students at a number of Western Australian high schools to chat to them about their understanding of STEM subjects in high school and tertiary education, and to discuss engineering as a career choice. These visits enabled us to map the touchpoints across their schooling where they were (or weren’t) given information about STEM-related careers, pathways or potential opportunities.

Of the 40 or so ATSI students we met with, all were on track  to complete the Online Literacy and Numeracy Assessment (OLNA), however none were enrolled in the subjects required to obtain an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) – the standard requirement for university admission. In other words, none of the students were on a mainstream pathway towards tertiary education. Our conversations were a little hesitant at first, but as we shared some doughnuts and stories, students began to provide feedback that was honest, blunt and more than a little concerning. 

Students demonstrated a lack of understanding when asked, ‘what do you think is a good wage for an adult?’ The overwhelming majority said they didn’t know what their parents made or what an annual wage should even be. Answers ranged from as low as $20,000 a year - which isn’t even minimum wage - to quite a few around the $50,000 mark. Three students replied with figures over $100,000 but those students all related their answers back to someone they knew who worked in a fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) role.

Graduate programs are not the answer: we need to do more to cater to students from all walks of life, at all levels of academic ability.

When asked if they knew what an engineer did, students again demonstrated a significant lack of understanding. The general perception was that engineers are very smart people, top of the class in maths and they all worked in offices. While their answers weren’t wrong, they clearly outlined the students’ perception of engineering as a career path outside their reach. We were lucky to have Head of Engineering for CBH Group Ben Crane join us on our visits to help provide real life examples of what engineers do in different industries. By relating engineering to real life problem solving, using examples such as Lego building or asking students to name something they owned that they had improved in some way, their engagement went through the roof. Most of the female students were taking hospitality classes and several shared how they aspired to cook like celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal and had tried to do so at home. They were shocked when we explained that this was as much a science experiment as it was cooking, with one student responding that she wasn’t smart enough for science, so how could that be true?

 

Looking ahead toward broader horizons

In preparation for Phase Two of our program - visiting those same schools to engage with Year 8, 9 and 10 ATSI students - we are mapping out a series of ‘day in the life of an engineer’ examples from various industries to help demystify students’ perceptions. We are also working with the WISE Professional Network to prepare hands-on STEM activities to help promote student engagement. 

While I genuinely believe we can develop the framework needed to improve ATSI engagement in STEM within our schools (who have shown fantastic commitment so far), it is crucial for companies from a variety of different industries to also get onboard. Organisations need to consider a more agile approach to their ATSI trainee pathways and workforce development plans. Graduate programs are not the answer: we need to do more to cater to students from all walks of life, at all levels of academic ability. We need companies to look at multi-phase programs to ensure that we can genuinely progress the careers of ATSI candidates – for example, moving away from starting as a trade assistant or dump truck operator and instead starting as a trainee draftsperson with a progression plan over several years to potentially earn an engineering degree. 

As part of the next phase of this conversation, Brunel will be hosting a series of round table discussions with key players from WA and QLD to help determine what steps can be made and which companies have the appetite for true Indigenous Australian representation in STEM. If we want to take genuine steps to removing barriers for ATSI youth to pursue rewarding careers in STEM, we need to get creative. There is always a solution if you look hard enough.

About the author

For over 15 years, Sonya has operated and managed Indigenous businesses providing services within the employment, training, community health, council governance and resource sectors. Driven by a strong desire to see equality and inclusion not only discussed, but tangibly enacted, Sonya works with people and organisations to build the pathways and capabilities needed to make ongoing change possible. Over the course of her career, Sonya has designed and implemented numerous Indigenous Recruitment and Employment Strategies including Mentoring, Training and Workforce Development Plans, and has successfully facilitated the recruitment and placement of over 150 Indigenous personnel across maritime, resource and professional roles.

Sonya Liddle

Manager, Diversity & Inclusion Solution

+61 8 9429 5600

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Brunel acknowledges the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people of the many traditional lands and language groups of Australia. We acknowledge the wisdom of Elders both past and present, and pay respect to the communities of today. We recognise their continuing connection to the land, waters and community.