One needn’t look very far for evidence of the groundbreaking contributions made to various STEM fields by talented women. Some of the more famous examples include, in research:
And outside of research:
Unfortunately, despite the obvious contributions of STEM-trained women to research and industry, gender inequity within STEM remains a pervasive issue. Worse, this inequity has an effect on women and girls of all ages. For example, according to research performed by Donna Farland Smith, if you take a group of primary school-aged students—be they Greek, Australian, Chinese, or American—and ask them to draw a scientist, between 65% and 78% of them will draw a male every time. Moreover, the Australian government reports that, as of 2018, adult women occupy fewer than one in five senior researcher positions in Australian universities and research institutes, and one in four positions within the overall STEM workforce.
Next, we’ll consider four myths that surround women in STEM; briefly survey the effects that those myths can have on women at all stages of their life; and then turn our attention to what this means for graduates today, with a particular focus on programs designed to support women as they enter STEM careers (you can skip ahead to this section if you’re already convinced that women in STEM face a variety of unique obstacles).
There are multiple reasons for the historical underrepresentation of women in STEM areas, ranging from entrenched cultural attitudes (for example, the belief that women are better suited to interpersonal roles) to systemic issues, such as the impact of discriminatory practices in professional and academic settings. The four influential ‘myths’ below confirm the challenges facing women in STEM, while underscoring the importance of programs designed to boost female representation in STEM areas.
According to a 2015 OECD report, Australian girls are less confident when it comes to maths, while boys are more confident. However, a 2011 Psychological Bulletin meta-analysis of more than 240 studies published between 1990 and 2007 shows no statistically significant difference in mathematics performance when boys and girls are given the same standardized tests.
According to a 2015 OECD report, Australian girls are less confident when it comes to maths, while boys are more confident. However, a 2011 Psychological Bulletin meta-analysis of more than 240 studies published between 1990 and 2007 shows no statistically significant difference in mathematics performance when boys and girls are given the same standardised tests.
Evolutionary biologist and behavioural ecologist Shinichi Nakagawa co-developed this meta-analysis to test for variations between groups. He and his colleagues used a sample of 1.5 million students across English speaking countries worldwide. STEM grades for boys were found to have 7.6 per cent higher variance, but this isn’t enough to upset the average. In a simulated classroom featuring the top 10 per cent of STEM students, boys and girls would be evenly distributed.
Nakagawa’s team also found girls to have 7.8 per cent higher average grades and 13.8 per cent less grade variability in non-STEM subjects. This suggests some girls may be discounting STEM, even if they’re good at it because they see themselves as better at other things. However, opening one door doesn’t close another. If you’re good at STEM, it’s worth considering on its own merits.
Pay inequality remains a pervasive issue in Australia. Currently, the national gender pay gap, as measured by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, is 16.2%. For the past two decades, it has hovered between 15% and 19%. The gender pay gap is higher among managers (28.8%) than non-managers (20.9%). When comparing the percentage of STEM graduates in the highest income bracket, reports the Office of the Chief Scientists, 32% of males earn above $104,000, compared with just 12% of females.
Importantly, a marked disparity remains even once one has accounted for the higher proportion of women who work part-time; whether or not one has children; and one’s highest educational attainment.
High attrition rates, job insecurity, and limited career prospects have all contributed to the fact that, while women hold 52% of undergraduate and 50% of postgraduate degrees in the natural and physical sciences, only 17% of professors are women.
Furthermore, having embarked on a STEM career, women may also face sexual harassment and the effects of conscious and unconscious bias. For example, in one study performed by Corinne Moss-Racusin, researchers presented employers with identical resumes to which male or female names had been assigned at random. Employers tended to rate the ‘male’ applicants as more competent and offer them higher salaries.
Cultural, social, educational, and professional barriers to women’s participation in STEM have ongoing consequences for women throughout their lives. Below, we survey some of the effects across four life stages.
As described above, by age nine, girls and boys are more likely to draw a man when asked to draw a scientist. Furthermore, though girls in grade four perform equally well in standardized mathematics tests, only one third are confident of their maths abilities (compared to 44 percent of boys).
The Office of the Chief Scientist reports that, at the age of fifteen, girls are more likely than boys to believe that mathematical skills will not help them with later study or getting a job. By year twelve, boys outnumber girls 3:1 in physics and 1.9:1 in advanced maths.
By the time they reach university, according to a 2016 report by Office of the Chief Scientist, women are vastly outnumbered in most STEM areas. When it comes to the attainment of bachelor degrees, they count for only 13 percent of IT graduates; 14 percent of engineering graduates; 22 percent of physics and astronomy graduates; 33 percent of maths graduates; 36 percent of earth sciences graduates; and 42 percent of chemistry graduates. Women slightly outnumber men in agriculture (51%) and biology (59%); in non-STEM areas, they account for 65 percent of all completed Bachelor degrees.
Female STEM graduates who enter the workforce face continued inequality, with STEM employers remaining less likely to employ women. The least inclusive industries are construction and transport, where the proportion of female graduates is 12 percent and 15 percent respectively. Women fare better in education and healthcare, where the proportion of female graduates is 41 percent and 60 percent respectively. Women who remain in academia must contend with systemic challenges of their own: only 17% of STEM professors are female, even though around 40% of junior STEM academics are female.
Gender inequality in STEM is not just a problem for women – it’s something that should concern all of us, for moral, civic, cultural, and even economic reasons. Why? Below we’ve collected a few answers from a variety of influential organisations that are advocating for more diverse representation in STEM today.
'Studies show that women researchers are squeezed out of science careers by structural barriers. The loss of such expertise is a significant waste of knowledge, talent and investment. Gender equity and gender diversity impact our nation’s scientific performance and productivity.'
– Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE)
'Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) offer the opportunity to engage in some of the most exciting realms of discovery and technological innovation. Increasing opportunities for women in these fields are essential to our economy and to achieve gender equality. By attracting and retaining more women in the STEM workforce we will maximize innovation, creativity, and competitiveness.'
– Office for Women, Government of South Australia
'STEM skills are critical to the management and success of R&D (research and development) projects as well as the day-to-day operations of competitive firms. . . . An education in STEM also fosters a range of generic and quantitative skills and ways of thinking that enable individuals to see and grasp opportunities. These capabilities—including deep knowledge of a subject, creativity, problem-solving, critical thinking and communication skills—are relevant to an increasingly wide range of occupations. They will be part of the foundation of adaptive and nimble workplaces of the future.'
– Australia’s Chief Scientist, 2014
'Attracting and retaining more women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce will maximize innovation, creativity, and competitiveness. Scientists and engineers are working to solve some of the most difficult challenges of our time, and engineers design many of the things we use daily. When women are not involved in science and engineering, experiences, needs, and desires that are unique to women may be overlooked.'
If you’ve read everything up to this point, you may be feeling discouraged – after all, you probably already knew that much remains to be done if women are to achieve equity in professional and academic settings related to STEM areas. But what about solutions to this problem?
Fortunately, the increased attention given to gender inequity in STEM has sparked some promising recent developments. In 2016, the federal government announced $8 million of funding for outreach projects aimed at supporting women in STEM. Similar initiatives include Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) and Male Champions of Change.
The need for support within STEM industries has also led to changes within the business community, with companies like the Boston Consulting Group, PwC, and Deloitte enacting policies and programs designed specifically to empower female employees.
Of course, as noted above, much remains to be done in pursuing gender equity within STEM. However, the progress so far has been encouraging. Below, you will find some of the resources now available due to this ongoing shift towards increased diversity and equity.
BPW is a lobbying and advocacy group that focuses on issues that affect working women in Australia. In addition to its activism work, BPW offers grants, a mentoring program, and various networking events.
Professionals Australia is an organisation that advocates fo