Women in STEM: myths, mentoring and more

Discover opportunities to help women progress in STEM careers in Australia, from mentoring programs to grants to advocacy groups.
Jaymes Carr
Jaymes Carr
Team GradAustralia
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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:

  • Marie Curie, whose pioneering research into radioactivity won her the Nobel Prize twice.
  • Rosalind Franklin, an English chemist who made vital contributions to our understanding of the structure of the human genome (and was, according to many, robbed of a Nobel Prize for her efforts).
  • Dorothy Hodgkin, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing protein crystallography.
  • Chieng-Shiung Wu, who led groundbreaking research in nuclear physics, and became the first recipient of the Wolf Prize.
  • Dame Jocelyn Burnell, an astrophysicist credited with the discovery of radio pulsars.
  • Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, whose astounding joint work on CRISPR-cas9 gene editing technology has established them as two of today’s most celebrated biochemists.
  • Elizabeth Blackburn, a Tasmanian-born biologist, who received the Nobel Prize for her co-discovery of telomerase, an enzyme implicated in cellular aging.

And outside of research:

  • Peggy Johnson, an electrical engineer who is now Microsoft’s Executive Vice President of Business Development.
  • Indra Nooyi, a physicist and chemist who is now the CEO of PepsiCo.
  • Angela Merkel, who completed a PhD in quantum chemistry before entering German politics.

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).

Four myths that hold women back in STEM areas

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.

Myth: There is a relationship between gender and mathematical ability
Fact: Girls and boys are equally competent at maths – there is no evidence of inherent superiority one way or another.

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.

Myth: Women just aren’t interested in STEM careers
Fact: Rates of female participation in STEM fields correlate not with ‘interest’, but with inclusivity and the creation of positive cultural environments

In Australia, only one in four IT graduates, and fewer than one in ten engineering graduates, are women. By contrast, 40% of engineers in China are female, as well as 44% of engineering graduates in Malaysia, and almost 60% of engineers in the former USSR. What accounts for the difference?

Research by Ellen Henriksen and her colleagues has demonstrated that the main influences on students’ decisions to study STEM (or not) are identity, perceived ability, and aspiration – all factors that are, to a large extent, culturally determined. Furthermore, it has been shown that a more actively inclusive and welcoming culture in male-dominated STEM fields is an effective way to boost female participation.

Myth: Men and women in STEM now receive equal pay for equal work
Fact: Women continue to earn less than men who occupy identical roles

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.

Myth: The battle for gender equality in STEM disciplines is over
Fact: Much work remains to be done before women are equally involved in STEM areas, and fairly recognised for their contributions

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.

What do the four myths above mean in practice?

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.

Primary school

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).

Secondary school

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.

University

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.

The workforce

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.

Why is it important to increase the representation of women in STEM areas?

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 is 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 the 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.'

– Nature

So… I’m a female graduate hoping to embark on a career in a STEM-related field. What’s the good news?

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.

Support and advocacy groups

BPW Australia

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

Professionals Australia is an organisation that advocates for the interests of all Australians in professional occupations. Through its gender and diversity division, Professionals Australia provides practical support to professionals facing a range of employment issues. This includes assistance negotiating pay; advice on wages, rights, career progressions, and other aspects of professional life; contract reviews; and events designed to bring together like-minded individuals.

SAGE

Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) is a government-funded advocacy group that aims to improve gender equity in the sciences through a program of activities designed to support women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine.

As an intersectional organisation, SAGE also aims to support transgender, indigenous, and LGBTQI+ individuals in STEM, as well as individuals who belong to ethnic or racial minorities.

Women in Engineering

A branch of Engineers Australia, Women in Engineering funds a range of initiatives designed to support working female engineers with continuing professional education, career progression, and more.

Association for Women in Science (AWIS)

AWIS is a global representative body for women in all STEM disciplines. In addition to organising networking events and providing various resources for women in STEM, AWIS maintains a strong commitment to advocacy work. It aims to promote diversity while creating “inclusive, fiscally responsive systems to drive research excellence, feed long-term growth, and fuel innovative solutions to the global challenges facing all our citizens”.

Women and Leadership Australia

WLA focuses primarily on equipping female professionals across all disciplines with the leadership and business skills they’ll need to succeed in their careers. It runs various conferences and symposia, and also offers funded places for early-career women who wish to take advantages of its courses in leadership and management.

Grants for women

For Women in Science

Sponsored by L’Oreal, the ‘For Women in Science’ recognises four Australian women and one woman from New Zealand each year, providing successful applicants with $25,000 to support their careers in science.

Superstars of STEM

Awarded each year, the Superstars of STEM program aims to support up-and-coming female scientists with the goal of creating role models for younger women and girls who might be considering a STEM career. Successful applicants are able to access a range of mentoring and educational workshops, and also commit to visiting three to five Australian high schools to inspire young students.  

Women Techmakers Scholars

Funded by Google, the Women Techmakers Scholars programs aims to identify female undergraduates and graduates who excel in the fields of computing and technology. Successful applicants receive an academic scholarship that recognises 'academic performance, leadership, and impact on the community of women in tech'. They are also invited to participate in retreats, mentoring programs, and other initiatives.

Mentoring Programs

Franklin Women Mentoring Program

The Franklin Women Mentoring program is aimed at female health and medical researchers, providing them with six months of professional and academic support and guidance.

Mentor Walks Australia

An informal gathering for female professionals, Mentor Walks Australia fosters cross-organisational connections between women at all stages of their careers.

To explore internship and graduate opportunities in STEM, browse GradAustralia’s graduate job board.