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  • Writer's pictureDr Francesca Maclean


There are some common questions or refrains used when we talk about gender equity in STEM. They have been used so much, they are almost overused, and don’t stimulate much new conversation or ideas, so here are some alternative takes that will help us flip the script and ask some different questions.

“Why aren’t girls attracted to STEM?”

We have been asking the same question for decades and we haven’t been making much progress in achieving gender balance in all STEM fields. Perhaps we should change the question we ask. What about:

  • Why do we encourage so many boys into STEM?

  • Why do we steer girls away from STEM?

  • Why do we encourage young women to study law and medicine but not engineering?

If we asked some of these questions, we might just start to see a different side to the challenge that is gender equity in STEM.

“Women are underrepresented in engineering.”

When we centre the conversation around there being so few women in STEM, it often leads our thoughts of solutions and strategies to focus on only the women. This focus tends to wander into ‘fix the women’ territory, which sounds something like this:

  • We need to get girls and women more interested in STEM

  • Girls and women need more confidence to succeed in STEM

Instead, think about it the other way: men are incredibly over-represented in engineering. We could be asking, “Why do we have so many men in engineering”?

An even more important question: “Do we have the right people in engineering?”. Having completed undergraduate and doctorate degrees in engineering, I know many men who pursued engineering not because they wanted to make the world a better place, but because it was what was expected of them. Should we be concerned? It might even help us, as a discipline, better solve the complex challenges in our world if we had more people – of any gender – who wanted to use engineering to achieve impact, rather than for the prestige of a title. And who knows, we might just get more women studying engineering too!

“Women just don’t stay in STEM”

In the Professionals Australia 2018 Women in STEM Survey Report, they found 31% of respondents expected to leave STEM in the next five years. That is a staggering figure. We need women in STEM to act as role models for girls and younger women – that gets a whole lot harder if we lose a third of the women we already have.

We know women often leave STEM however we rarely ask why. Luckily, the survey has that covered too, so next time your D&I committee is lamenting this issue, you can share the top factors for leaving:

  • Lack of career advancement

  • For better pay and conditions

  • For better work / life balance

  • For increased challenges

  • For a change or to gain experience

  • For greater professional recognition or status

After asking the right question, as we can see with this survey, we have a better idea of what could lead to better retention of women.

Next time you, your family, or your organisation discusses gender equity in STEM, use this as a starting point to have a different conversation which might encourage some different ideas and approaches. Nothing changes if nothing changes, so let’s start asking some different questions!

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