The State of Women in STEM – Not a Pretty Picture

The underrepresentation of women in STEM-related industries has been a well-documented and well-publicised phenomenon. In a report released by the Australian Government’s Office of the Chief Scientist recently, the degree of the disparity between men and women in STEM is glaringly obvious. In the first of its kind, this comprehensive study draws a picture of the state of women in STEM that should have everyone concerned.

The report, based on the results of the 2011 Australian census, shows that 84% of all STEM qualifications are held by men, compared to non-STEM credentials, where women hold 61% of qualifications. Other stark statistics of the state of women in STEM include:

  • 32% of male STEM graduates were earning in the top income bracket (>$104,000) compared to only 12% of female STEM graduates
  • Although Science-related graduates were almost gender neutral (51% vs 49% in favour of men), 93% of all Engineering graduates were men
  • Although there have been some improvements in the number of women entering STEM-related study, IT was the only area in which the number of female students had not improved substantially
  • 25% of women with Engineering qualifications in Australia were not in the workforce
  • The unemployment rate of female engineers in Australia was almost double that of male engineers

According to Alan Finkel, Australia’s Chief Scientist, “more worrying than the gender imbalance in some STEM fields, was the pay gap between men and women. These differences cannot be fully explained by having children or by the increased proportion of women working part time.”

As outlined in Engineering Australia’s ‘Women in Engineering’ report, not only do women not apply for Engineering places at University at the same rate as their male counterparts, the drop-out rate of women in this faculty is staggering, with only a 16% completion rate. Even before they enter University, only 6% of female students in Year 12 studied advanced level mathematics, the pre-requisite subject for many STEM-related University degrees.

As with any discussion about gender balance, there are those who still need a reminder of the reason why this is such an important issue. So let’s quickly remind ourselves about the ‘so what?’. Some 1,200 pieces of empirical data exists both from Australian and overseas studies that show organisations that employ a good balance of both men and women are more likely to succeed and be more profitable than those that don’t. This is not a definitive indicator that women perform better than men per se, it simply means that in an organisation that embraces different styles of working and thinking, there are more opportunities to foster innovation that differentiates an organisation amongst its competitors.

No-one can argue that this is not a complex issue. It is influenced by cultural norms, expected gender roles, lack of female role models in industry, lack of encouragement by teachers and parents, as well as the presence of both conscious and unconscious biases against women from the day they start school. However, just because this is a complex issue, does not mean that every effort should not be made to address current statistics.

A multi-pronged approach which aligns efforts in primary and high schools, Universities and corporate Australia is required to drive sustainable change. Initiatives such as Girls Who Code, Girl Geek, the Tech Girls movement and Girls in Engineering are just some of the programs that are working towards making tech and engineering interesting and attractive to young women.

However, this support and encouragement needs to go further. Schools need to actively support girls to challenge themselves in maths and science subjects. Universities need to ask themselves why so many women are dropping out of the traditionally male faculties and address the systemic issues that exist in making women feel that they aren’t welcome in their hallowed halls. Organisations need to review their value proposition to attract and retain the best talent across the board and promote female role models. Governments need to keep their eye on the ball and continue to put in place initiatives to support institutional change.

Australia spends in excess of $7billion dollars per year in educating its girls and women. A return on this investment is essential if we are to continue being a prosperous nation and innovate in a business environment where STEM experience is increasingly a given. Locking out half the population is not an option.