Creating genuine pathways for Indigenous youth to succeed in STEM careers

Creating genuine pathways for Indigenous youth to succeed in STEM careers

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) people are seriously underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professions across Australia. To address this gap, Brunel Australasia is rolling out an important new initiative to develop pathways for ATSI youth to reach – and thrive in – STEM professions.

In preparation for phase two of ATSI in STEM, Brunel Australasia recently hosted a round table session for key industry partners and leaders to discuss how businesses across Australia can play their part in increasing ATSI engagement in STEM. Brunel’s Diversity and Inclusion Manager, and coordinator of ATSI in STEM, Sonya Liddle, shares key takeaways from the round table session.

Sonya Liddle
Manager, Diversity & Inclusion Services
Sonya Liddle

We need to shake up the status quo

Currently, a meagre one in 200 Indigenous people of working age are employed in STEM professions across Australia, compared to one in 20 non-Indigenous Australians. Clearly, the current pathways to STEM careers are not adequately engaging or supporting the ATSI youth of Australia. After almost 20 years working in the Indigenous sector and as the mother of an Aboriginal teenager, I am passionate about addressing this gap and seeing far more Indigenous youth realise their potential in STEM careers. It’s time to confront the unconscious biases that still exist in our culture when it comes to career options and expectations for our youth. Let us recreate the pathways and framework of Indigenous students’ experiences and present STEM careers as a genuine, viable option for them. As part of Brunel’s ATSI in STEM initiative, I recently hosted a round table session with stakeholders across various industries, to discuss how we can make genuine, long-overdue change to boost Indigenous Australian representation in STEM.


What’s wrong with the current pathways?

A key issue we discussed was why the existing pathways to STEM careers are missing the mark for most ATSI students. There are many great programs out there, but the majority are at a tertiary level and are focused on high performing students who have a good support network around them - even the bridging courses are not readily available and accessible for many. The problem with this is that many ATSI kids perceive pathways to STEM careers as totally out of their reach. They’re not being included in the conversation when it comes to STEM professions, so they don’t even understand what is potentially available to them. Phase one of our initiative highlighted the lack of awareness Indigenous students have around STEM careers, and this is something that we must address. TAFES and universities do have excellent support systems in place, but often students aren’t aware of their existence or how to access them. When you may not have access to the internet or a laptop at home, let alone bus money, how can these pathways seem achievable? Given the opportunity and support, Indigenous youth absolutely have the aptitude to succeed in STEM careers, but they’re not being presented with these pathways in their communities and networks. How can we turn this around?


Early engagement key to success

Any initiative we develop must engage students from a young age to be successful, and provide on-going mentorship and support throughout the entire journey. To achieve this, we need to develop long term partnerships with schools. We need to engage students well before they select their high school subjects, capturing their potential interest in STEM with programs or activities that break down barriers and misperceptions of what STEM actually is. Early intervention is a powerful thing, encouraging students to recognise their own potential before ideas about STEM careers being unattainable creep in. Sadly, we have to fight against insidious social and cultural prejudices, which is why early - and ongoing - support is so essential to show Indigenous youth that this is a viable option for them, should they choose it. Sporadic programs and initiatives that support ATSI in STEM aren’t enough to shake deeply ingrained beliefs, but continuous connection and engagement over time truly has the power to nurture a student’s belief in themselves. 

Sporadic programs and initiatives that support ATSI in STEM aren’t enough to shake deeply ingrained beliefs, but continuous connection and engagement over time truly has the power to nurture a student’s belief in themselves.

Guaranteed employment outcomes

Another crucial piece of the puzzle is that there must be guaranteed employment outcomes for ATSI students in STEM careers, which is where our industry partners come in. Let’s say we achieve the dream of long-term partnerships with schools, where ATSI youth receive the support and training in STEM subjects they need to pursue careers in STEM. Unfortunately, Indigenous Australians still face so much prejudice when it comes to employment opportunities and wage brackets. There has to be properly compensated employment at the end of the training - otherwise, why would they go through it all? You can’t expect passion if there’s no end goal. Any pathway we create needs to extend beyond partnerships with schools to incorporate agreements with companies across various industries, who commit to hiring and supporting ATSI people in STEM careers. Companies need to look at the entrance pathways into their companies and assess where changes and modifications can be made. Traineeships with actual qualifications, paid internships, and utilising support roles to create entrance points to ongoing workforce development plans will go a huge way to making STEM and STEM-related careers a possibility for so many. With this in place, ATSI students weighing up their future career options will see a genuine path forward, rather than a potential dead end after years of study.


Flexible ways to hire and retain

Building on early engagement through school programs and commitment from companies to hire ATSI candidates for STEM positions, we need to consider flexible, culturally sensitive ways to hire and retain Indigenous Australians for these roles, for our pathway to be a true success. Our round table discussion generated some brilliant ideas on how we could make this whole process more comfortable and supportive for ATSI people as they commence their STEM careers. In the recruitment process, for example, rather than conducting intimidating formal interviews, why not have real, two-way conversations which afford participants the opportunity to get to know each other - especially when the interviewer and interviewee come from culturally diverse backgrounds and situations. ‘Never underestimate the power of sitting down with someone and having a yarn the old-fashioned way, sharing a story and learning from each other,’ one member said. Another speaker pointed out the need for flexible rosters and a re-evaluation of minimum requirements such as holding a driver’s licence, to accommodate hardships new recruits may be dealing with. If new employees are struggling with personal or familial barriers that make it hard to come to work, they may not feel comfortable communicating that and may simply drop out, which is why employers need to be accommodating and provide mentoring as well as cultural awareness training to all employees to bridge that gap.


Where to from here?

There are so many systemically racist barriers that exist day-to-day that are not factored into many of the pathways currently on offer. To develop a pathway that genuinely increases engagement of ATSI people in STEM careers, we need to acknowledge these barriers and work to overcome them. We need long term partnerships with schools to create early engagement, we need commitment from industry to hire ATSI people and we need additional support systems in place throughout the entire process. Our approach must be holistic and recognise that patchwork support won’t work. We need to develop a clear pathway - from early education and engagement all the way through to employment in STEM careers - for this initiative to be a success. 

So, I leave you with a challenge. What is your commitment to increasing ATSI participation in STEM careers? Is it guaranteeing jobs within your organisation? Is it a financial investment to support this initiative? Is it offering traineeships through your organisation? Is it joining our upcoming working group for industry partners and leaders, to contribute to phase two of our initiative? At Brunel, we see a desperate need for this initiative, recognise that there is a massive gap and want to drive genuine change, giving ATSI youth a real opportunity to flourish in STEM careers. If you are interested in supporting this initiative or want to learn more, please contact me directly via the link below.

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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.