Senate Updates: Women and Girls in STEM, and Eating Disorders

Senator O’NEILL (20:17): I’m sure you’ll be as surprised as I was, Mr Acting Deputy President Brockman, to find out that when children aged nine to 11 were asked to draw a scientist two-thirds of them drew a man. Did you know that only around one-third of girls in year 4 in Australia were confident in their maths ability, compared to 42 per cent of boys in year 4? 

Let me say that this is not a phenomenon that is internationally consistent. We’re talking about a particularly Australian phenomenon. I’m sure you’ve heard this one all too often in Australia: ‘Girls aren’t good at maths or science.’

We should all know well by now that biological sex does not innately affect one’s potential to succeed and achieve in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, but stereotypes and a lack of confidence are impacting on the decisions and choices that our boys and girls are making. Take this statistic, for example: boys are three times more likely than girls to choose physics in year 12 and nearly twice as likely as girls to choose advanced mathematics in year 12. All of this matters for our nation—for the advancement of the innate capacities that our population holds and for our economic outcomes as well. We need girls engaged in STEM because it’s simply unfair that gender limits choice. More than this, we need girls engaged in STEM because it is critical for their future economic security.

As Labor’s shadow assistant minister for innovation, I’m passionate about changing the under-representation of girls and women in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. I have been meeting with inspiring and remarkable women in STEM who are at the forefront of ideas and innovation, and they are doing their bit towards transforming the nation. They have made it very clear to me that much more needs to be done to ensure the deep-rooted issues at the heart of the under-representation of women in STEM are finally solved. When it comes to participation and approaches to studying or working in STEM, there is a gender divide. Sadly this gender divide can be observed very early in the educational decisions made by our girls and boys. Whilst progress has happened here in Australia, we are nowhere near where we need to be to achieve gender parity in STEM, which we know has been achieved in similar contexts in other jurisdictions.

This is largely because obstacles for girls in STEM have deeply entrenched societal, cultural and institutional roots. We know that these things are notoriously difficult to change and reshape. Unfortunately we saw this eventuate in the last month when the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science 2018 were announced. The prizes recognise the contributions that scientists, innovators and science teachers make to Australia’s scientific and commercialisation capabilities. Of the 10 awardees, only one was a woman, Dr Lee Berger, but at estimates we were told that, of the 128 nominations, less than 27 per cent were women. That 27 per cent was the highest representation of women on record, but it didn’t translate to a recognition of awardees at a similar rate. This has to change, and it will be hard work, but it’s work that we must do, because our girls need all of us to do better and we need to secure their future economic security.

I also want to put on the record today a little bit of an update on some of the work that I’ve been doing with people from around the country with regard to eating disorders and particularly to record the perspective of young people. This is because, while eating disorders know no boundaries of age or gender and can occur in men and women of all ages, young people are those at highest risk. Every single year for the last two decades Mission Australia’s National Youth Survey consistently indicates that body image is one of the top three concerns of young men and of young women. Young people with body dissatisfaction are more vulnerable to disordered eating and more vulnerable to developing eating disorders. Research tells us that most young people know at least one other young person who they think might have an eating disorder. We know that body dissatisfaction and eating disorders can profoundly affect a young person’s ability to participate and succeed at school.

This is something that Minister Hunt has labelled a personal priority. Last year Minister Hunt tasked the Medicare Benefits Schedule Review Taskforce to investigate options for Medicare coverage for the treatment needs of those living with an eating disorder. Labor welcomed this inquiry and remains supportive of it. Minister Hunt made an explicit commitment to providing more Medicare support for all Australians living with an eating disorder by 30 November 2018. That date is rapidly approaching. Minister Hunt stated:

… we have to change that paradigm and provide more services and more Medicare support in order to do that, and I am confident that over the course of the next year we will achieve that outcome.

This was the Grace Groom Memorial Oration that he gave last year on 30 November, and Labor was pleased with this, but then during budget estimates in May the Department of Health advised that the MBS Review Taskforce had not submitted recommendations and that no costings had been undertaken. They stated that the task force was expected to submit its recommendations in late 2018. I note again for the record that 30 November 2018 is a deadline fast approaching. Minister Hunt must deliver on his commitment to create a plan for a specific treatment for all Australians who are living with eating disorders. Minister Hunt must match his words with real action for the more than one million Australian men and women living with an eating disorder. The impact that is felt is not just on that individual but, significantly, on their family, the people they work with and their friends who care about them and can see the struggles that they face with issues of access and with issues of competent and effective treatment.

I’m concerned that the government will continue to do what it’s done in this space, which is to talk a big game, to over-promise and to under-deliver. I’m very concerned that there should not be false hope but, rather, support for all Australians who need assistance with the treatment of eating disorders.