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The importance of gender diversity in STEM

Today in Australia the average full-time woman’s wage is around 18 per cent less than a man’s, and women continue to be underrepresented in leadership roles in all sectors.

Although women dominate ‘pink collar’ industries such as teaching and healthcare, they are often few and far between when it comes to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). But could that be about to change? Last year as part of Australia’s new commitment to ‘innovation‘, Prime Minister Turnbull earmarked $48 million to boost skills in digital and STEM, and $14 million for women in research, STEM industries, start-ups and entrepreneurial firms.

One of Australia’s most distinguished researchers, Professor Svetha Venkatesh is well aware of the landscape in STEM for women, having worked in computer science for 25 years. When she started studying, she recalls being one of four girls in a class of 600 men. ‘Although there are more women in the industry now compared to when I started, I think there’s still a lot of work to be done – the number hasn’t increased as much as I would have liked,’ she says.

Head of Deakin University’s Centre for Pattern Recognition and Data Analytics, Prof. Venkatesh’s expertise lies in developing new technology that recognises patterns in big data. Prof. Venkatesh was recently awarded the prestigious Australian Laureate Fellowship in recognition of her ground-breaking, internationally competitive five-year program of research, ‘Pattern Analysis for Accelerating Scientific Innovation’.

‘We look at problems in society and see how data can help us solve them,’ she explains. Her work examining data patterns and developing technology to harness data insights has helped doctors predict suicide risks, autistic children to learn new skills, and neighbourhoods to reduce crime.

For example, Prof. Venkatesh helped create the technology that powers intelligent video surveillance software. Commercialised by iCetana, the platform uses video analytics to detect potential security threats in large data sets. It allows surveillance operators to focus in on the one per cent of events on the street that require attention, helping predict when a crime is about to occur.

'Although there are more women in the industry now compared to when I started, I think there’s still a lot of work to be done.'

Professor Svetha Venkatesh,
Deakin University’s Centre for Pattern Recognition and Data Analytics

Prof. Venkatesh explains that when we have an enormous amount of data on hand, it’s important to know how to interpret and make the best use of it. ‘You need to have some insight into how you want the data to help you.’

Developments in metadata analysis over the past decade have opened a huge wave of information about industries, consumers and countries. Prof. Venkatesh says that when it comes to benefiting from these massive data sources, we have been ‘seduced to believe that data analysis will always empower us, but this is often not true, particularly when events are rare or predictions are poor’.

‘Big data has vast potential in areas ranging from security, to health, finance, retail, politics or climatology, but we have found we need to look beyond the data – thinking laterally and creatively – if we are to solve problems with these data sources,’ she said.

To harness opportunities of big data, we need innovative, imaginative thinkers on the job, and research shows that socially diverse groups – with a mix of gender, as well as ethnicity and age – are far more innovative than homogeneous groups. In short, being around people who are different from us makes us smarter. Attracting more women like Prof. Venkatesh into STEM industries is an exciting step forward in creating the right environment for solving some of the world’s most complex problems through innovation.

Read further about Prof. Venkatesh’s award-winning work as a ‘STEM hero’ in big data

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Professor Svetha Venkatesh
Professor Svetha Venkatesh

Alfred Deakin Professor, Faculty of Science, Engineering & Built Environment, Deakin University
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