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Verity Edwards, July 1, 2017

Growing up in China, Fang Chen’s parents wanted her to study electrical engineering because it was practical. “My parents thought getting into electrical engineering, at least I could repair TVs,” Chen says.

Now in her late 40s, Chen has a bachelor degree, a masters and a PhD in computer science. She moved to Australia 15 years ago while working for Motorola, before she moved to NICTA — the nation’s information communications technology research centre of excellence.

In 2015, it merged with the CSIRO to create Data61. The new organisation focuses on data science research, engineering and advising the government, business and academe on ICT needs. Chen has produced 150 refereed publications and filed more than 30 patents. She helps industries better use their data, and increase productivity and innovation through business intelligence.

While she always has worked in a male-dominated industry, she wants to encourage more women into science, technology, engineering and maths careers, which she does not think should be about gender. “Working in data and computer science is not that scary, it’s no different to other jobs,” she says. “It’s not about being female, it’s about telling a story. Data is not about gender.” At Data61, 21 per cent of the staff are women, and the organisation runs interviews with women to better understand the opportunities and barriers to working in a male-dominated industry.

Chen says STEM’s boundaries “are blurry” — from careers in psychology to human behaviour and architecture, not just maths, physics and “hardcore subjects”. She says providing workplace opportunities is even more important in encouraging participation. “It’s changing perceptions. We offer lots of work experience options, we offer internships. I would strongly encourage people to look and experience, and after they experience it, it’s not so scary. It may trigger your interest in doing things differently.”

Chen’s colleague, Hilary Cinis, a website user experience designer, represents diversity of thought and unconventional pathways. Cinis, 49, was more interested in design than information technology and never went to university. “I suck at maths badly,” Cinis says. “I didn’t go to uni and I’m passionate about championing people in STEM who didn’t go to uni.”

When she left school in 1986 the internet had not been invented. She now knows STEM careers can arise from adapting interests to the web. After studying design she taught herself how to use the internet before joining a small tech business where she taught herself HTML and interface design — or making websites easier to navigate and understand. She landed a design job at Yahoo!, coding and producing, where she stayed for nine years, pioneering a career that had not really been invented yet.

After a few years at the ABC working on the newly created CatchUp television and the multiplatform iView, an opportunity arose at NICTA, and later Data61. “They needed a designer, I’ve been very good at exploiting niches,” Cinis says, underplaying her ability to create new IT pathways.

She does not see herself as an IT or STEM person. Cinis considers herself a designer who just happens to be a problem solver on technology platforms. She is also used to a lack of gender diversity, and thinks there is a need for widespread diversity and not just a change in the malefemale split. “I grew up in the 70s in Australia and it was really sexist. My father was in the trucking industry and then I worked in agencies and the media,” she says. “I don’t think of it that way, I’m confident and used to being around men. “Occasionally I’ll walk into a room and think there are 60 people in this room and most are white Anglo men, and there are one or two who aren’t, and only one or two chicks. “I’m seeing more diversity now, but at executive levels I’m seeing the people who entered the industry 10 to 20 years ago — I think that will change.”

She says encouraging change means hero-worshipping scientists and promoting their successes, particularly in the media. “Newspapers have finance sections that people don’t read, they should have science sections,” she says. “If enough women are profiled, it will be normalised.” Cinis says young women also need to think outside the square and realise their interests and talents can be adapted to the online world, as she has done with design. “There’s this weird disconnect — STEM is not all scientists in lab coats or writing codes, tech is ubiquitous.”

ICT company Sqware Peg has doubled its female staff from 20 per cent to 42 per cent in less than two years. Strategy, Partnerships & GTM Director Libby Adams has expanded her offices and made an effort to lift female participation, which typically sits at about 20 per cent in the industry. “Women bring different perspectives and creativity to the problem-solving process,” Adams says. “With a good proportion of women in the room, your ideas are richer and more powerful. That translates into better solutions for our customers’ diverse problems.”

Sqware Peg Managing Director Reid Meldrum says the company’s financial figures prove diversity works. “Fifty per cent year-on-year revenue growth does not happen without customer success, and a large part of our success is due to having a much better gender balance than is typical in the tech sector.”

Australian Industry Group recently released a report, Strengthening School-Industry STEM Skills Partnerships, funded by the Office of the Chief Scientist, to improve student participation and industry involvement. The group’s chief executive, Innes Willox, says industry has been concerned about the supply of STEMtrained graduates and the role of schools to increase participation.

Willox says there are challenges for education systems to provide the appropriate professional development for teachers to implement STEM. The report recommends professional development for maths, digital technologies and science teachers to integrate STEM into other subjects and the establishment of a national forum to discuss industry and school partnerships.