Women in STEM: Barriers and what to do about them

By Eromanga Adermann

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There has been substantial progress towards gender equality in education and employment over the last 50 years. Women have gained access to the same educational and career opportunities as men, and are well-represented in many fields. However, progress in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) has been slow. In these fields, women remain significantly underrepresented, […]

There has been substantial progress towards gender equality in education and employment over the last 50 years. Women have gained access to the same educational and career opportunities as men, and are well-represented in many fields. However, progress in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) has been slow. In these fields, women remain significantly underrepresented, making up only 27% of the STEM workforce across all sectors in 2016 [1], and only 29% of the university qualified STEM labour force [2]. Although there has been some improvement in the female representation in STEM over the years [1,2], gender balance remains far from reach.  

This underrepresentation of women in STEM is concerning, as jobs in STEM are central to innovation and economic growth. STEM is far too important to our society and future for women to be so underrepresented. Furthermore, increasing diversity in these fields increases creativity and productivity, which in turn leads to greater innovation.  

Why are there so few women in STEM careers 

There are many significant barriers that discourage women from having successful STEM careers, which begin in childhood and continue throughout adulthood. There is a false but prevalent belief in society that boys are “naturally” better at maths and science than girls are. Although this idea has been debunked [34, 5], the negative stereotypes and beliefs remain pervasive and influential. They can be both explicit and implicitworking to reduce girls’ confidence in STEM early in their education [6]Reduced confidence leads to reduced test scores, which further reduces confidence. Over time, girls’ aspirations and interest in STEM careers decline or disappear altogether [7]STEM careers are also often painted as ‘masculine’ careers, which, combined with the lack of visible female role modelsmakes STEM careers generally less attractive to girls than to boys.  

Despite these societal barriers, many women do obtain STEM degrees and join the STEM workforce. Howeveronce in the workforce, women face more barriers to their success. Although women in STEM fields tend to have higher salaries than women in non-STEM fields, there still exists a gender pay gap in STEM professions [8]Women in these professions also have higher rates of attrition than both their male counterparts and women in other non-STEM professions [9,10]2008 study of private sector STEM professionals found that high-tech companies lost 41% of their female employees by mid-career (approximately 10 years in)compared to only 17% of their male employees [9] 

The gender stereotypes that affect girls’ interest and confidence in STEM also pervades the STEM work environment, hindering women’s progress and participation at work. Women are still judged to be less competent than men in STEM roles, even when they have proven their competence. Moreover, when a woman demonstrates clear competence in a ‘masculine’ role, she runs the risk of becoming less likeable [11]. Both these biases likely contribute to the primary reasons behind women leaving STEM careers: lack of career advancement, for better pay and conditions, for better work/life balance, for increased challenges, for a change or to gain experience, and for greater professional recognition or status [12] 

On top of the STEM-specific biases, women in STEM also face the same types of barriers thawomen in non-STEM professions face during their careers, including negative attitudes towards taking career breaks and working part-time and incidences of sexual harassment [12,13] 

What can we do about it? 

The state of gender equality in the STEM workforce is quite negative. However, we are not entirely powerless against itThere are some actions we can take to help close the gender gap (see [12] for full list of actions) 

Since gender stereotypes impacting interest in STEM starts in childhoodone action we can take is simply being mindful of how we speak to children about STEM. Are we sending our children the message that girls are less capable than boys, or that STEM careers are not appropriate for girlsIf your daughter or your female students lack confidence in STEM subjects, actively encourage them and help them adopt a growth mindset (which reduces stereotype threat). It is also important to teach children that STEM is not just for men, by exposing them to successful female role models in STEMThis will help counter negative stereotypes that affect girls’ confidence, and which continue to affect women in the STEM workforce.  

As well as encouraging young girls, we must also address the significant obstacles that drive women out of the STEM workforce. STEM workplaces (and non-STEM workplaces) should be consciously inclusive, familyfriendly and safe for people of all genders. Career penalties from taking career breaks should be identified and removed, and options developed for flexible/part-time work at senior management and leadership levels. Sexual harassment policies should be in place and checked to ensure that they are working for the people they are meant to protect. Women should have equal access to complex and interesting projects, training and development opportunities, formal and informal mentoring and networking opportunities. To counter implicit bias, it is important to raise awareness of the existence of implicit bias against women in STEM, as decisions or actions that unfairly disadvantage women can be prevented if people are aware that they have unconscious biases that lead to themFurthermore, adopting clear criteria for success, which results in transparent evaluation processes, can further help counteract unconscious bias in assessing women’s performance 

These are just some of the actions that you and your workplace can take to remove the obstacles that women in STEM face. Putting all this in place goes a long way to building a gender equal workplace where people of all genders can thrive.  

References 

[1] Office of the Chief Scientist (March 2016). Australia’s STEM Workforce.
[2] Office of the Chief Scientist (July 2020). Australia’s STEM Workforce.
[3Kersey, A.J., Csumitta, K.D. & Cantlon, J.F. (2019). Gender similarities in the brain during mathematics development. npj Sci. Learn. 4, 19
[4Kersey, A. J., Braham, E. J., Csumitta, K. D., Libertus, M. E. & Cantlon, J. F. (2018). No intrinsic gender differences in children’s earliest numerical abilities. npj Sci. Learn. 3, 12
[5Hutchison, J. E., Lyons, I. M. & Ansari, D. (2018). More similar than different: gender differences in children’s basic numerical skills are the exception not the rule. Child Dev. 00, 1–14
[6Pajares, F. (2005). Gender differences in mathematics self-efficacy beliefs. In A. M. Gallagher & J. C. Kaufman (Eds.), Gender differences in mathematics: An integrative psychological approach (pp. 294–315). Boston: Cambridge University Press.
[7] Hill, C., Corbett, C., St. Rose, A. (2010). Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (AAUW Report)
[8] Workplace Gender Equality Agency (February 2018). Australia’s gender pay gap statistics. 
[9] Hewlett, S. A., Buck Luce, C., Servon, L. J., Sherbin, L., Shiller, P., Sosnovich, E., & Sumberg, K. (2008). The Athena Factor: Reversing the brain drain in science, engineering and technology (Harvard Business Review Research Report). Boston: Harvard Business Publishing.
[10] Simard, C., Henderson, A. D., Gilmartin, S. K., Schiebinger, L., & Whitney, T. (2008). Climbing the technical ladder: Obstacles and solutions for mid-level women in technology. Stanford, CA: Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research, Stanford University, & Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology.
[11] Heilman, M. E., Wallen, A. S., Fuchs, D., & Tamkins, M. M. (2004). Penalties for success: Reaction to women who succeed in male gender-typed tasks. Journal of Applied Psychology, 89(3), 416–27.
[12All Talk: Gap between policy and practice a key obstacle to gender equity in STEM (2018)2018 Women in STEM Professions Survey Report, Professionals Australia
[13National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2018). Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.  

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