Innovating for workplace diversity

Jess Vovers in the lab — taken by David Danaci.

I wrote this to accompany my talk for veski’s Fast Smarts event as part of Melbourne Knowledge Week. Of course, the lack of diversity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) isn’t something we can fully explore in six minutes and forty seconds. So I’ve created this as a starting point. It is by no means complete — this is a complex area and I myself am constantly learning more about it — but it’s more of an introduction, with some ways we can address it, and links to more resources.


  • Harassment — creates a hostile work environment, people ‘pushed’ out
  • Discrimination
  • Unconscious bias (Check your bias using the Harvard Implicit Association Tests, or see Jane Elliott’s Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes Exercise)
  • Stereotypes and prejudices
  • Lack of accessibility — in so many senses. Ultimately we need to provide and create opportunities so that people can take them up.
  • Career structure (family pressures still commonly gendered, bias against part time or parental leave ‘breaks’ in career progression)
  • Deficit of diversity in senior positions — lack of role models


At all levels, providing support, inspiration and opportunities. In everyday life, being an ally. This means listening to the experiences of others, educating yourself (and others) and helping to make spaces for voices that are diverse to raise them up.


We need a culture shift.

The majority of actions to address inequity in STEM are potentially flawed in that they assume a baseline respect for people from diverse backgrounds. There is a critical issue here: STEM has documented discrimination and sexism. Experiences of harassment and discrimination undermine all efforts you might make to address a lack of diversity — if people are not safe, they will leave.

First step: look at your harassment policies. Channels should be as clear and accessible as possible, with multiple reporting routes and enforced policy — not just empty threats allowing perpetrators of harassment to stay in the system. When an incident occurs, there should be no question of where and how to report, particularly for already immensely challenging experiences such as sexual harassment. Is your organisation doing enough?

Create spaces that encourage diversity. Be vigilant. Call out inappropriate language and actions (even if they’re “jokes”: see why denigrating jokes are harmful). Raise awareness of problematic and hostile behaviour. If you’re an engineer, think of it like safety culture: a safety incident must be defused, and you have to train yourself to see and address it. This is something we have cultivated as an industry — and we can do the same for being inclusive.

Share your failures. Like that time I destroyed a pH probe due to material incompatibility.

Observe group behaviour, and ensure everyone is able to voice their thoughts in discussions (whether due to confidence, monopolisation by others, etc). Act as a facilitator where needed, particularly if you have a position of privilege; you have a powerful opportunity to influence change. Normalise vulnerability by sharing your failures — this creates a safe space for discussion so that these issues can be addressed and not hidden.

Close the wage gaps. This article speaks on gendered wage gaps in Australia, but it’s important to know that other intersections of identity will result in wage gaps that can be even more significant (see The Simple Truth (particularly the full report) for 2017 data in the US including race/ethnicity, disability status, sexual orientation, age and others). For Australian data, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency has a brilliant tool to compare data across a wide range of industries and even within specific role types within those industries, however it doesn’t contain information about other aspects of diversity.

Support and encourage diverse people to take risks in applying for opportunities — nominate them when possible, celebrate and reinforce their successes and achievements. If you can, offer mentorship, or better yet sponsorship.

Hiring and promoting can be rife with issues. Unconscious bias training can be useful to an extent. Having a diverse panel can only go so far if they aren’t trained to check their bias (see common gendered biases in research). Transparency in reviews can also address some of the issues.

I’m not going to have the quotas discussion or argue about the value of meritocracy. A true meritocracy can’t exist while systemic bias exists. In our current system, performance isn’t wholly dictated by merit alone (see gender bias in the Heidi and Howard example (1) (2) (3)). If you want to have diverse teams, you’ll need to build them somehow. Look at the language you use and the channels where you advertise.

We need to improve flexibility. Pictured: Alissa Vovers.

The next big shift we need is for workplace and career structures that allow for flexibility — things like job sharing and part time work, HR policies to help return to work, adequate parental leave facilitated so that uptake does not result in bias, and provisions for childcare. This isn’t just about families, but also people with chronic health conditions for example.

How is your organisation represented externally? Be inclusive of diverse groups in campaigns, in events, in everything. It may seem small, but making visible change reflects not only on your organisation but also your industry. Check about diversity when speaking externally at events (especially panel events). When organising events, make them representative and have authentic engagement.


To achieve equity in the workplace we need equity in domestic responsibilities as well (high quality affordable childcare must become a reality — look at m-time for diverse local initiatives).

If you have or will have young people in your home you have an amazing opportunity to instill values in them, and act as a support system. Build self confidence, independence, and bold vision in young people, so that our world can thrive under future generations. As our world becomes more automated and machine focused, creativity and creative thinking will become massive assets. Here in Melbourne we’ll soon be home to a node of the international Science Gallery network, where young minds will be inspired by the intersection of art and science.

Aftermath of a Science Gallery Melbourne workshop.

Universities need to provide supports for students who have come from diverse backgrounds, including, for example, first generation students and students from low-income backgrounds who can experience a very real ‘culture shock’ upon entering university.

Women in Science and Engineering supports students at the University of Melbourne.


Let’s commit to and action this, not just talk about it.

If you’d like to know more about me, you can read more here, or contact me through Twitter.