APEC – Promoting Women and Girls’ Participation in STEM

Dr Leonie Walsh, our inaugural Ambassador for Women in STEMM Australia, represented Australia in October last year at the APEC Workshop – Promoting Women and Girls’ Participation in STEM held in Chinese Taipei, 24-27 October 2017. Leonie is a well-known and respected leader and advocate for STEMM industry and innovation, as well as women in STEMM. In this blog, Leonie shares her experience and the warm welcome she received at this excellent international meeting.


It has been some weeks since I have returned from the APEC – “Promoting Women and Girl’s Participation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)” workshop in Taipei. I came away from the week with increased knowledge of the programs and activities being implemented around the world in this area thanks to the 60 delegates, from 14 economies, and their generosity in sharing their experiences.  Although their experiences differed due to their differing cultures, political environments and social influences ultimately the same issues and challenges emerged with respect to increasing the number of girls and women in STEM in their regions.

Leonie_APEC2The workshop involved communication of the considerable depth and breadth of activities across the countries represented with significant plans in place to further grow and develop these initiatives. What was concerning about the outcomes from the Taipei workshop was that for all this effort by very capable and experienced professionals the rate of progress was still slow.  The quote that has dominated my thoughts since returning from the APEC workshop encompassed the complexity of the challenge ahead. Anna Shen, Journalist and Start-Up adviser from Silicon Valley, provided the quote “If you want to change the game you need to change the rules broadly including corporate, government, community building, legal support, hiring of women in Tech (including VC firms) and more women on boards.”   Changing the rules is more challenging when they are deeply rooted in culture but it is still worth doing.

The implication of this message is that although developing programs and activities to engage women and girls in STEM is important and of value, on its own it may not be enough unless we can also progress and adapt the environments that girls and women will be studying, researching and working in. Changing the rules will require working on behaviours, culture and leadership more broadly and this will require a multi-pronged approach over time including:

  • Continue to focus on the range of inclusive programs focused on girls and women in STEM being careful of supporting all of the sub-sectors.
  • Provide support/mentoring/training to help girls and women operate in environments where the leadership or culture is not currently inclusive and does not offer the opportunities for girls or women to fulfil their potential.
  • Provide training to the current and next generation of leaders on inclusive leadership in contemporary fields such as risk management, corporate governance, negotiation, financial management and innovation.
  • Lastly continue to horizon scan the emerging issues and opportunities facing women and girls in STEM and evolve and grow the programs to meet these new opportunities.


A number of core themes came through in the workshop presentations and discussions including:

  1. The challenges are basically the same globally with some cultural and policy differences
  2. Significant impact can be achieved with programs and models that integrate a strong concept, collaboration and effective use of social media
  3. Girls and women in STEM demographic is broad and efforts need to be inclusive within this demographic e.g. refugee groups, the LGTBI community, single versus married women.
  4. Policy can be beneficial and necessary to correct systems that are “broken”.
  5. Inclusive Leadership and culture will be core to sustained improvements in workforce behaviors.

In more detail:

1. The challenges are basically the same globally with some cultural and political differences

The challenge of attracting girls into STEM was a common one across all countries. It was valuable to hear how different countries are addressing the issue in different ways through policy frameworks, advocacy, funding, role models and targeted education and outreach programs. There has been significant progress in some cases but more change and progress is needed.

One of the barriers common to many of the countries represented came in the form of abuse of power from counterparts or leaders. Several examples presented during the workshop demonstrated the discrimination faced by women progressing their career in start-ups, academia and business. Typically, this is where the female is in a dependent role where the risk of standing her ground has significant implications and can result in discrimination or harassment. The challenge is how to help women during Important career negotiations to start from a position of confidence and to ensure that they do not feel vulnerable and dependent on the outcome.  Examples of large multi-national organisations that have achieved progress through embedded HR Policies, support networks and in some cases recognition programs were provided.

Role models are a significant resource and can help create awareness of the types of careers available and the pathways to the careers.  We need to ensure that there are a diversity of role models presented that have overcome challenges to achieve their career trajectory and have endured and overcome the challenges and barriers faced. Further progress can be made by targeting influencers e.g. parents, grandparents, peer groups, teachers, career advisers and mentors of women in STEM rather than just targeting the girls and women.

2. Significant impact can be achieved with programs and models that integrate a strong concept, collaboration and effective use of social media

There were many examples of programs presented with significant uptake of girls and/or women in STEM fields. Two diverse programs stood out with regards to consistent models around a clearly defined gap, well thought through partnering and effective use of social media.

One of the programs that has demonstrated significant participation since launching in 2016,  #SheBusiness, was  presented by Clair Deevy, Head of Economic Growth Initiatives Affairs in Facebook. Claire is an Australian based in Singapore and recognised the value of connecting organisations, connecting people from different sectors. The #SheBusiness idea was generated and was launched on International Women’s Day in 2016 on the basis that “When women do better, economies do better. That’s why Facebook is celebrating women who have built and run businesses, and delivering resources to help those who might one day do so themselves”

#SheBusiness has now trained 42,000 women in small business in 17 countries.  The program has reached 6.4 million women owned business and the success of the program is based on partnerships to capacity build in-country in an ongoing basis with a dual focus on building networks and skills. Significant homework is involved in planning for growth into new countries and regions but then Claire has found that progress starts to steamroll through word of mouth. Social media has played an enabling role in spreading the message, helping to build networks, promoting role models and communicating the activities.

A second example with a focus on the Tech sector was presented by Jane Shih, CEO of We Together.co and Managing Director of Girls in Tech Taiwan, Chinese Taipei.  Girls in Tech is about accelerating the growth of innovative women in technology around the world. WeTogether now has 52 chapters and 2500 members in Chinese Taipei with 50,000 around the world. The challenge was in building awareness which involved reaching out to community leaders, joining their events and communicating the importance of collaboration and alignment.  Jane started up monthly events for female founders and built this slowly. Plans for 2017 include attracting more female tech entrepreneurs, focussing on STEM education, target founder network, increase international events and target high school electives with relevant topic.

3. Women in STEM demographic is broad and efforts need to be inclusive within this demographic

The majority of the presentations in the workshop focussed on women as a broader community however there were reminders that within this community we need to provide support networks that are also inclusive of diverse demographics. Anne Yang, Principal Program Manager Lead indicated that Microsoft Taiwan actively support the LGBT community in their workplace and other programs, such as the Veski Inspiring Women’s Program were designed to support high potential women through career interruptions.

Sylvia Kegal, Treasurer of German Association of Women Engineers raised attention to the needs of refugee scientists in Europe who are well educated in engineering but even more invisible than European women scientists and engineers. Migrants in STEM have multiple handicaps, have the need to earn a living or fragile funding sources, have a take a chance attitude. More media and role models are required to showcase needs for this group of women.

4. Policy can be beneficial and necessary to correct systems where there is substantial imbalance

There were a few examples presented where policy setting has influenced numbers with regards to girls and women in STEM with the most significant result being in Taiwan and Korea.  Two gender equality laws are in place in Chinese Taipei relating to the Gender Work Equality Act and Gender Equality Education Act to further specify the entitlements of different genders in the employment and educational system. These laws will also require all of Government agencies to establish HR gender database

Meenam Shinn, President of Doosan Corporation, Republic of Korea provided an update on Korean policy relating to girls and women in STEM in her country.  Korea introduced a fundamental law for fostering women in science and engineering in 2002 and this law has also been updated through three stages.  The initiative Includes fostering top talent, improving competency, increasing high quality jobs, enhancing work life balance and ensuring gender equality for science policy making.  The result in Korea is that the ratio of female students in engineering has increased from less than 0.3% in 1986 to 37.3% in 2016. The next issues for the country involves ensuring sustainable government support and how to transfer these government initiatives into the private sector and lastly to cooperate with APEC countries to develop synergy.

Many other countries are introducing new political frameworks that support Women in STEM through new government funding programs for education, start-ups and businesses and in some cases, such as quotas on government board positions in Victoria, Australia.

5. Leadership and culture will be core to sustained improvements and impact workforce behaviors

Inclusive leadership, transparent work policies, champions of change and positive cultures within organizations can and do result in women reaching their full potential in organizations. Unfortunately, not all workplaces are like this and there are many reports to suggest that bias, discrimination, non-inclusive culture and poor leadership are reasons for women being held back in the workplace.  In many cases this is due to the leadership and culture within the organization which may have been embedded over many years.  Sylvia Kegal indicated that in Germany there is a “Sense that women and leadership are not compatible, nor women and science/technology nor women and power.”  As Anna Shen mentioned we need to find ways to change the rules where the current rules no longer fit and/or help and support women and girls to operate within or exit from non-inclusive environments.  Building culture is critical but has to happen very early on when the company is in the growth phase. It is hard to undo when the company gets bigger.

Leadership training at early to mid-career level could provide support to help women navigate their way in more challenging business and academic environments where the professional development systems are biased and/or broken. Types of training include:

  • Providing the necessary and contemporary business skills to help them navigate with the right language and capabilities into leadership and start-up roles in the current dynamic and changing business environment e.g. negotiation, corporate governance, chairing meetings, risk management, basic financial management, innovation and digital mastery skills.
  • To help build confidence in handling environments which are not fair and equitable by knowing when to try to improve the environment, and preferably how to do this, and when to move on to a better environment given that the current one appears to be irreparable.
  • To manage the complexities and challenges of attaining work/life balance and career progression in an environment that does allow them to reach their full potential

Magdalena Claro Larrain, Co-Founder of HackGirls, in Chile indicated that they are starting to see leaders emerging at early to mid-career level. Chile is focussing on building a community and focussing on small leaders and eliminating fear.


The workshop clearly demonstrated that there is significant increase in the participation of girls in the STEM areas such as engineering and technology. It is a little too early to see how this is translating to long term STEM rates and retention down the chain.  One of the Korean organisation represented is starting to track the career difference between girls that participate in the program and those that don’t. They have been tracking this for 3 years and many people have asked for this input.

There are examples of significant change emerging including:

  • Increased recognition from governments that policy support is required
  • Recognition and communication of the salary gap issues is starting to impact HR policies
  • Recognition that programs need to begin at elementary, middle and high school level to start the engagement process earlier
  • Hiring policies are changing in Silicon Valley with the use of blind CV’s. Groups are emerging with a focus on bringing women with money together to have stronger influence and voice
  • Increased global reach of some of the more successful initiatives with strong global partnering
  • Changes in leadership and culture will take time but coaching women and girls how to operate in non-inclusive environments and building confidence may help in the short term

With regards to the outcomes of this workshop a more extensive booklet will be created for the program to increase awareness. A further workshop will be planned in 2018 to look at action items.

Acknowledgements: Very special thanks for the hospitality and friendship from Helen Lee, Mei Shih, Vivian and Annie Chang and the support of the Foundation for Women’s Rights Promotion and Development. Very special thanks to Marguerite Evans-Galea, co-founder of Women in STEMM Australia for passing on the recommendation to attend this workshop.

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