This project is a collaboration with the Alliance of Girls Schools Australasia and the UQ Business School that has been funded by UQ's Faculty of Business, Economics and Law and UQ Business School grants. The project surveyed over 10,000 boys and girls in years 7-10 from 13 top university matriculation secondary schools during 2016-2017 as well as interviewing over 500 of these students with regard to their understanding of gender equality, leadership, self-confidence, subject choices and career aspirations. The data is currently being analysed and preliminary findings will be made available in the first half of 2019.

The Alliance of Girl Schools Australasia has facilitated access to top schools in Queensland for this project and is now looking to create a national resource for the education of young women regarding barriers to women’s career progression. A project examining the views of young women and their educators regarding the current understanding of gender inequality in the workplace forms a central part of this project.

National significance

Australia’s productivity is being impacted through the inability of our society and businesses to progress more women into senior and executive roles. This lack of representation in key industries is a significant economic issue for Australia, since the industries from which women are most absent are those that dominate our economy and make the largest contribution to GDP (ABS, 2014). Gender inequality in workforce participation, industry participation and progression into leadership roles results in the forfeiture of a 20% increase in GDP for every year that the problem goes unresolved (Goldman Sachs, 2009; OECD, 2012; World Economic Forum, 2013). This figure represents an annual loss to the Australian economy of around $300 billion every year (ABS, 2014). The lack of female representation in leadership roles is also a significant economic issue for Australia. It is linked to international competitiveness, while at the organisation level attracting, retaining and promoting the best and brightest male and female talent is critical to sustained performance (WGEA, 2014b). Additionally, gender inequality is a significant social issue in Australia, resulting in increased rates of poverty and insufficient retirement funds for women (ACOSS, 2012).

Principally, GDP is foregone because of the inefficient use of human capital in the Australian workforce. Hundreds of scientific studies have shown men and women to be equally intelligent, gifted, ambitious and driven (Eagly & Carli, 2007; Shibley-Hyde, 2014). However, while women in Australia comprise 45.9% of the full-time labor force (ABS, 2014), only 3.5% of CEOs of ASX500 companies are women (WGEA, 2014a). This has been demonstrated not to be a pipeline problem (Eagly & Carli, 2007). For instance, women have been graduating from universities at higher rates than men since 1985, a period of time significantly more than a generation ago. The proportion of female graduates has been gradually increasing since 1985 and has comprised over 55% of all graduates since 2000 (ABS, 2012). Additionally, mining and construction are among the better paid industries in the Australian economy and yet women only occupy 15.7% and 16.1% respectively of all roles in these industries.

The current project attempts to unravel in particular what is happening around subject choices and career aspirations, a topic that remans under-researched. The numbers of women graduating from science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) based degrees are relatively low. Engineering in particular has only 15% female graduates (McDonald, Loch & Cater-Steel, 2010) and only two-thirds of these graduates move into critical operational engineering roles which are most valuable in moving into executive and CEO roles later in careers (Bowles, 2012). Outside of the STEM fields, across critical business disciplines, such as management and law, female graduates comprised 50% and 60%, respectively in 2011. On the basis of the graduation evidence alone, many more women should be competitive candidates for junior managerial roles and management entry-level positions in organisations. Yet, despite graduating in larger numbers, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency reports that women only hold 39.8% of these roles. Beyond these levels the number of women in each level of hierarchy shrinks dramatically so that women only represent 6.5% of CEO’s in ASX200 firms (ASX, 2017).

One reason investigated more fully in this project is the relative reluctance of women to apply for senior roles (Eagly & Carli, 2007). A dominant explanation is that the decision not to apply for roles is driven by a relative lack of self-efficacy in women relative to men (Kay & Shipman, 2014). The relative self-efficacy of boys and girls have been directly measured in years 7-11 as part of this project. Another significant reason given for gender disparity in executive roles is the need for line role or operational experience in order to be eligible for executive and CEO roles (Bowles, 2012). However, the majority of operational or line roles in industries, such as mining, energy, construction and manufacturing, require the study of STEM subjects at university. While there is some evidence to suggest that many women drop out of STEM subjects at university (Jagacinski, 2013), we know that relatively few women are enrolling in these courses in the first place (Roberts, 2014).

Understanding why women are not enrolling in STEM subjects in university requires examining what is happening in our secondary schools. Students in Australia are required to make decisions regarding subject choices at high school as early as the end of year 8, when most students are only 13 years old. These decisions are often informed by experiences of the subjects they have undertaken previously, along with the external influences noted above. However, the decisions made by these adolescents can preclude them from undertaking senior subjects which are, in turn, prerequisites for most STEM subjects at university. As Roberts (2014:4) notes ‘At 15 years of age, the career ambitions of male and female students have already shaped their STEM engagement.’ Understanding and addressing influences, which may simply be reproduction of gender stereotypes, in primary and secondary schools is therefore critical (Cheryan, 2012; Else-Quest et al., 2013).

Outcomes from the research will primarily inform interventions by schools to develop self-efficacy in young women as well as provide evidence to support initiatives to improve the number of women undertaking STEM subjects. More generally, through publications in academic as well as popular press, the research will also help to inform society regarding the consequences of gender stereotypes on the establishment of self-efficacy and career choices for women. From an economic perspective, STEM degrees are known to lead to careers in more highly paid industries and which dominate contributions towards Australia’s GDP. STEM graduates are also the pool from which most senior executives and CEOs are chosen.

Project members

Dr Terry Fitzsimmons

Senior Lecturer in Leadership