Women in STEM

The other day I had a younger girl ask me the other day if I ever got annoyed by the push for more women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). On the whole I have had a pretty positive experience; I was encouraged in my maths and science classes at school, I have a great group of friends at university who are all supportive and I probably wouldn’t be able to give you a concrete example of any discrimination that I’ve personally experienced. However, my positive experiences are too often the exception to the rule and the rarity of stories like mine are revealed by the data and statistics surrounding female experiences in STEM.

While it may be true to say that overall there is roughly equal enrolment of both males and females in STEM courses, these enrolments break down problematically insofar as specific disciplines. Enrolment data from the ANU [1] shows that courses such as chemistry, environmental science, science communication and earth and marine science enjoy an overall gender balance. Biology and psychology alone have greater female than male enrolment, potentially because of the cultural perception of these being more “feminine” than a lot of other STEM courses. Maths and physics both have a significantly higher proportion of male enrolments, and this gap only increases when you look at engineering and computing/IT courses, where the gender ratios are skewed at about 80% males, 20% females. This is considered a good ratio, and it’s a statistic that is often thrown around to show how much better the ANU is compared to other institutions. For context, the national average percentage of women enrolled in “Engineering and Related Technologies” courses is below 15% [2].

It is often asked what the actual issue is at this point. Sure, there might be fewer women, but isn’t that just a reflection of the degree choices students make? Why should we care about the small proportion of women in these courses? Well, the influences of various factors on degree choices is another issue altogether, so let’s focus on the women who do choose to enrol in some of these STEM courses. This skewed gender ratio is an issue because it creates a culture where women’s experiences can be far from positive. In a survey conducted on 1014 students (95% of whom were from the ANU), almost 50% of females responded that they had at some point felt uncomfortable and isolated in their study environment due to their gender [1]. This discomfort and isolation experienced by so many women is concerning, as it can act as a very real disincentive to continue studying in that particular area. When you walk into a lecture theatre and you’re one of less than ten women, that can be genuinely daunting, this becomes even worse in smaller groups where you may be the only female in your tutorial or lab. And when you stop asking questions in class for fear of perpetuating the stereotype that you’re less intelligent than your male counterparts, your own learning can suffer.

However, it’s not just feeling uncomfortable or isolated. There are plenty of instances of blatant discrimination ranging from rape jokes and sexual harassment to lecturers or tutors outright discouraging students from further studies. The basis for this discouragement was because no one would supervise them because of their gender, or that an academic career is difficult and might not be compatible with a good family life. Such a culture can only exist where the gender balance is so skewed.

So yes, from the outside looking in, the whole “women in STEM” thing may seem like it’s over the top and unnecessary. But as a female in this environment, when it helps us feel comfortable in our learning environments, encourages us to pursue a path we might have been told we couldn’t and is a step towards reducing the massive discrimination often faced by women in these industries after graduation, it’s something we should not only tolerate, but actively celebrate, support and engage in.

And if you still don’t care about any of it then consider this – a number of studies have shown that when women become involved with traditionally male industries creativity and innovation are maximised, there are less mistakes and better products are made. Encouraging diversity in the workforce improves the quality of products and services provided for everyone, and getting more women into STEM is a step in the right direction.

[1] A. Li, K. Ward, J. Tjandra and M. Powell, “Women in STEM,” 2015.
[2] Australian Bureau of Statistics, “Education differences between men and women,” Australian Social Trends, 2012.