Interview – ABC Sydney Breakfast with Wendy Harmer and Robbie Buck

Science Week, women in STEM careers, STEM education in schools

Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews was interviewed on ABC Sydney Breakfast by Wendy Harmer and Robbie Buck.

Robbie Buck: Well, this Science Week, the Federal Science Minister is using the week to encourage parents to do more to help and to encourage your kids to give science and tech subjects a go. Karen Andrews is the MP for the southern Queensland seat of McPherson. She entered politics in 2010 after graduating from mechanical engineering, and she’s a passionate advocate for science. Good morning to you.

Karen Andrews: Good morning.

Robbie Buck: Now, engineering, my brother studied engineering. Did you go to UQ?

Karen Andrews: No, I went to QUT.

Robbie Buck: Okay. But same deal. It would have been a bit before your time, but he did engineering back in the sort of very early 90’s. And I think there were about two or three women in the entire course- the entire year that he was in, in his course. Hardly any.

Karen Andrews: Yep. Look, it's a terrible statistic for women in engineering, and it's one that we really have to address. So when I went through mechanical engineering, there was myself and another girl in the class, coincidentally also called Karen. So it was two Karens from mechanical engineering.

Robbie Buck: Good grief.

Karen Andrews: Yes. And look, you know, many years later that statistic hasn't changed significantly, and it needs to change.

Wendy Harmer: So how did you get into engineering? What happened in your background, Minister?

Karen Andrews: Well, I always wanted to fix things. So I was sort of fairly hands on with things growing up, but when it got to, I guess year 12, because back in those days, career counselling was pretty limited and really didn't happen until you were close to leaving school. There was myself and two other boys that had similar marks, and the two boys were encouraged to do engineering and I was encouraged to be a maths teacher. So, you know, a whole range of issues.

Robbie Buck: That's a red rag to a bull, that is.

Karen Andrews: Yeah. So anyway, look, what that did to me was encourage me to find out what engineering was all about. And I did, and I thought, oh that sounds really interesting. I could do that. So actually the three of us went on to do engineering, so two mechanical and one electronics engineer came out of that group of three. And I loved it.

Wendy Harmer: And tell us about your working career in mechanical engineering.

Karen Andrews: I spent most of my time in maintenance. So, loved maintenance engineering because I like to fix things, and once I fixed them, I wanted to do what I could to make sure that they didn't break again. I loved maintenance, so I spent my time in coal-fired power stations and in petrochemical plants. So yes, I was a power station engineer.

Robbie Buck: Yeah right. There’s a lot to fix in those.

Wendy Harmer: You got around in your overalls and your high-vis vest. Were you in charge of a fleet of workers, or working alone?

Karen Andrews: I was when I worked in the oil industry, and that actually led to a career change because I was supervising fitters and electricians, and I thought that if you had the skills and training to do the job, you should go out and do it. That was the view of the oil industry at the time. So I had to learn very quickly about industrial relations, and I did, and I loved it. So I moved into a role in industrial relations starting in the metals and engineering industry.

Robbie Buck: Wow, okay. Well look, tell us about where you are as a Science Minister and how you see the role. Here we are in Science Week, it should be said that in the last 5 or 10 years there have been a good few years where there hasn't been a Science Minister, which I know for the science community has been a bit disappointing.

Karen Andrews: Yes. Look, I love being the Science Minister. I mean, what a great job. I was the Assistant Minister for Science a couple of years ago and went from science into vocational education. So I've been in this portfolio area for quite a few years now. But I also set up Parliamentary Friends of Science, along with Richard Marles. So we've actually run that for about eight or nine years. So I've had a long involvement in science and working to get my colleagues engaged.

Robbie Buck: Good.

Karen Andrews: I think it's very important.

Robbie Buck: Well I have to say that there probably are some politicians who are a bit averse to science, or perhaps don't accept science in ways that they could.

Karen Andrews: Look, I'm up for a challenge.

Robbie Buck: Yeah good.

Wendy Harmer: Now let's get back to your central message here. By the way, Peter's just sent me a text on the text line here, Minister, and he says - well it could be that women just aren’t interested in engineering. Let's answer Peter first. So what would you say to Peter who's listening?

Karen Andrews: That's entirely true, but what I would also say is maybe they don't understand what engineering is about, and to be honest, maybe some boys don’t understand what engineering is about, but they’re guided into that area because they are male and because they are good at maths and science. So what are we going to do to encourage girls to look at a whole range of career options so that they can make well-informed choices.

Wendy Harmer: Okay. Now he's hit back. He says, I'm not interested in hairdressing, but I don’t blame women for that. Oh Peter, keep your wig on this morning, is what I would say, Peter.

Karen Andrews: We’ll I’m not blaming…

Wendy Harmer: No, of course I know we aren’t. Hey, as I say, Peter’s got a bit of a hair trigger. Now, the point that you're making, I think this is an interesting one. Well, I wonder if this is applicable in your case. You say, if a kid comes home - and say they're in science, they’re in a difficult subject - a kid comes home and says, oh it's all a bit hard. You would like parents to step up on this. Tell us about why you have decided to champion this particular cause here.

Karen Andrews: For a couple of reasons. Firstly, we need more kids to be studying maths and science at school, because we know- I mean, the stats are 75 per cent of the jobs of the future are going to require those skills. So they need to have those skills, whether they go into work as a scientist, or whether they are, for example, working as a hairdresser where they have to work out the ratios of the chemicals they’re putting on people's heads. They still need to understand the basics of science and maths. So it's really important that we get them to be studying the science and maths. But also, I think that it's very easy for some parents to say to their kids if they're struggling a little bit with maths and science at school, don't worry about it, I wasn't really good at that and I turned out okay, giving them an easy option out. Whereas with just a bit more encouragement, to say well actually, you can do it. How do I help you? How do I get you the support that you need? Can I help you? Can I find an answer on Google?

Wendy Harmer: Yep. Alright, then. If things get rough, you know, step in there and encourage them. That's what you're saying.

Karen Andrews: Yes, exactly.

Wendy Harmer: Yeah. Good on you. Well it’s very nice to talk to you and make your acquaintance, I must say Minister.

Karen Andrews: Yes. Lovely to chat too.

Robbie Buck: And happy National Science Week.

Karen Andrews: And the same to you.

Robbie Buck: Thank you very much.

Wendy Harmer: Thanks. Bye-bye. That’s Karen Andrews, she is the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology.