Women in Innovation

Innovation is essential for a successful and productive economy. Innovation is about building on what we already know to create fresh ideas, new products and services, new production processes and ways of working. Innovative thinking is the key to keeping New Zealand internationally competitive and ensuring its future growth and prosperity. 

Research confirms that innovative firms are more profitable, enjoy greater market share and have higher sales than non-innovative firms.  They are also more likely to create jobs.

More women, more innovation

It’s vital for New Zealand’s economic future that women participate fully in innovation.

This means encouraging more women to participate in tertiary level study, including at the highest levels. The more highly educated women are, the better their job and remuneration prospects will be and the more likely they are to contribute ideas and innovation to our economy. 

What they study is also important. New Zealand needs more women involved in innovative industries such as engineering, ICT, software development and computer science.

Demand for skilled workers in innovative industries is high and to meet the demand New Zealand needs to recruit and train more women. Young graduates in these areas also enjoy significantly higher rewards and remuneration. It’s a win-win.

Women and science studies

Science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM subjects) are subjects critical to innovation.

At primary school level, there is no difference in science achievement between male and female students. By age 15 girls and boys have comparable literacy skills in science and maths.

At the senior secondary school level, the overall number of students taking science subjects drops, but girls make up around 50 percent of those who do continue with science subjects. Girls however are more likely to choose biology subjects and boys physics and calculus.

Here is a diagram which sets out the usual pathways for students to study and progress towards a career in the science and innovative sectors.

Currently, at the tertiary level, women make up 64 percent of Bachelor of Science enrolments. However their study choices within the science spectrum mean they are over-represented in the health sciences and under-represented in areas such as engineering and technology. Women make up less than a quarter of those studying for a Bachelor of Science in Engineering and just over a third of those studying for a Bachelor of Science in Information Technology.  

These study trends mean that women do not fully participate in innovative work such as engineering. Women make up only 13 percent of engineers and seven percent of Chartered Professional Engineers.

While New Zealand has a larger proportion of women graduates in engineering, construction and manufacturing degrees than countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia, there is a still a long way to go for women to be fully represented in science and innovation, at an academic level and across industry.

Women under-represented

Women in New Zealand are under-represented in leadership roles within the research and academic sectors.

Based on 2011 figures produced by the Association for Women in the Sciences, women are under-represented among research staff at all New Zealand universities except the Auckland University of Technology where women make up 48 percent of all research staff across all faculties. In Canterbury and Lincoln Universities for example, women make up less than 30 percent of research staff.

Women are also under-represented in leadership roles in universities.  There are very few female Heads of Departments within science faculties across the country. Waikato University has 42 percent female representation at HOD level but AUT, Massey and Lincoln Universities all record no female staff at the science HOD level.

The picture is similar in the Crown Research Institute environment. At Board, Senior Management and Executive Team level, the proportion of senior female staff remains well below 50 percent across all the Institutes.

Another revealing statistic is that women achieve less than a third of all successful applications to the Marsden Fund.  The fund is one of the largest funds in New Zealand for basic, non-applied research and success is seen as prestigious within the science community.

Given the overall low participation rates of women in senior science research and academic roles, it is not surprising that women do not figure prominently among Royal Society Fellows. Figures for 2012 show that only 33 of New Zealand’s 371 Fellows are women.

What’s happening to support women’s participation?

There are several initiatives or organisations in place to address gender imbalance in science and innovation.

The Women in Leadership Programme (NZWiL) exists to support, encourage, and contribute to the development of women who are, or aspire in future to be, leaders within the tertiary sector. 

The Association for Women in the Sciences (AWIS) encourages women to use and develop their scientific abilities and to achieve their full potential.

The Institute of Professional Engineers in New Zealand (IPENZ) is working to attract and retain women in engineering.