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  • Dr Francesca Maclean

BOLD MOVE OR BS? UTS REDUCES ATAR REQUIREMENTS FOR WOMEN IN ENGINEERING

Last week the University of Technology Sydney announced they would effectively be reducing the ATAR requirement for women entering engineering, providing them with 10 bonus points: women can enter an engineering program with an ATAR of 69, while men would have to achieve an ATAR of 79.


Is this a bold move or another feel-good stunt to win the media battle for the most ‘women-friendly’ STEM degree?

In 2017, women completed 14.8% of engineering degrees and made up 11.2% of professional engineers – so it’s clear engineering has a gender problem.

This is even more concerning as engineers can literally design and build the world around us, which has unfortunately resulted in a world not designed for women.


The wicked problem of gender inequity in engineering has been around for decades, and with many moving parts it is difficult to fix with one solution or the other. With gender inequity persisting in 2019, bold and brave action is required to challenge the persistent and insidious gender stereotypes and discrimination that has plagued my industry since, well, forever.


So, is reducing the ATAR threshold for women the answer? Below I explore some common concerns.*


ATAR isn't the barrier to women's entry to engineering degrees


Many people think ATAR requirements aren’t even the barrier for women entering engineering degrees, as it is often thought that pre-requisite subjects are the biggest barrier (well, along with a toxic culture and lifetime of gendered socialisation to believe engineering is not for women…)

Declining year 12 maths enrolments have been a concern for many maths-dependent industries like engineering, and enrolments continue to have a significant gender gap: in 2016 only 7% of year 12 women studied advanced maths compared to 12% of year 12 men.

Given that young women are a heterogenous group, we can’t expect all of those who study the right maths subject in year 11 and 12 to study engineering at university. Removing structural barriers, such as pre-requisite subject completion would be one way to design a more inclusive STEM education pathway for women and other minoritized groups. Looking at their website, it doesn’t seem as though UTS has pre-requisite subjects for engineering – perhaps their data shows that ATAR requirements are indeed a barrier for their women applicants (we don’t know yet).


It tells women they aren’t smart enough to get into engineering by themselves


By providing women 10 bonus points, an obvious message would be that women aren’t good enough to get into engineering with their own smarts – which is a contrary message given that women have a higher median ATAR than men in NSW.

However, if we take an intersectional view, knowing that ATAR scores are correlated with social class, it could open up the door for young women from low socio-economic backgrounds who may not have had the privilege of attending top schools that help you achieve a higher ATAR.

Engineers can have a profound effect on building a healthier, safer, more accessible world, and we definitely need more socio-economic diversity in our industry so we build that world for everyone.


Let’s also remember that not every woman grows up with engineers in her family or has access to engineering outreach programs in high school. Visibility is key – you can’t be what you can’t see – so if you don’t have it, often you are a few steps behind. If changing the ATAR requirements for women sends a message that they are wanted in engineering, that is a bonus.


It tells men that women aren’t smart enough for engineering


I can assure you, gaining entrance to an engineering degree is just the start of it. It’s what awaits you that is probably the biggest problem, and this is my main concern. In Australia, young women enter an academic system and culture that was never designed to include them, and it is one where they will be subject to sexist comments, sexual harassment and assault. Male-dominated fields with toxic masculine contest cultures exacerbate the baseline hostility women experience every-day in society, made even worse because these women are also trying to excel in what is a pretty gruelling four-year plus degree.

My 98+ ATAR did not exempt me from enduring the toxic masculine and hostile culture that persists in engineering degrees to this day.

If I had my achievements and my legitimacy as a student in engineering discredited because of my gender, what on earth will these women face when the young men will perceive them to have gotten a ‘leg up’ because they couldn’t ‘make it’ by themselves?


I call on UTS to share what culture change program they will be implementing to not only counteract the inevitable backlash these women will face – not only for just being women, but for being recipients of positive discrimination. This is a fantastic opportunity to explore privilege, the difference between equity and equality, and the need for diverse and inclusive environments with all of their student engineers. While achieving critical mass (30% or more) will help organically change the culture of any degree, UTS cannot solely rely on these 17 and 18-year olds to battle engineering’s gender inequity.


UTS has a duty of care to ensure these women will not only survive but be able to thrive during their studies. Will UTS also be providing these women with more than the three women lecturers I had access to over five years studying engineering and science? Will they ensure their engineering tutors are skilled in fostering and maintaining inclusive learning environments and know how to call out bad behaviour? Will they ensure women have equal access to industry networks and connections that are fostered in environments other than evening drinks, and with organisations that are gender equitable? There is so much more that goes into an engineering university experience than an ATAR – this is just the beginning.


Bold moves set the bar high


This move has received a lot of criticism. However, suggestions that UTS pursue more outreach and attraction via scholarships is just resorting to what we have always done – with little evidence to show it makes a difference at all (here are more thoughts on women-only scholarships).


Changing ATAR requirements for women is not the whole answer. It might be part of the answer – only time will tell.

It's not a silver bullet - they don't exist. What UTS has done is recognise the importance of addressing systemic barriers to women’s STEM participation.

UTS has created a conversation about the need for bold moves in changing the status quo that is currently gender inequity in STEM. More importantly, it sets the bar for every other university (we know they all love a bit of competition). I can’t wait to see what other universities will do to create a step change, striving towards gender equitable engineering that shapes a future for everyone.


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*This is a HUGE topic! I can't wait to explore more aspects in depth with you through TFP. Keep an eye out for more articles! -FM

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