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  • Dr Francesca Maclean

The pipeline myth

Chances are, you’ve heard about the STEM ‘pipeline problem’. It is normally described as leaky or broken, and used to explain why we don’t have enough women in STEM. This leaky, broken pipeline is supposedly why universities can’t reach anywhere near gender parity for their engineering and computer science enrolments, and in turn, is also why industry can’t increase their gender representation any faster than the glacial pace we see now.

Unfortunately, the STEM pipeline metaphor has become a convenient excuse for gender inequity and it does not provide much use in creating impactful and sustainable solutions to rectify that inequity. We need to reframe the way we think about STEM, and its ability (or inability) to attract, retain, advance and reward women – and people with disability, First Nations peoples, LGBTIQ+ people, and people from low-socio economic and culturally diverse backgrounds (because we know the future is nothing if it is not intersectional!).

There are many articles and reports on the STEM ‘pipeline’, so here is a synthesis of the challenges with this metaphor, and how we can talk STEM so we have a constructive and nuanced understanding of what the real issues are.


STEM careers are many and varied pathways, not one linear pipeline

Initially, the pipeline metaphor was useful to illustrate the challenges with the STEM talent pool – that is, useful if you have a linear mindset of valuing skills, education and experience. The pipeline maintains that participation in STEM at high school and university levels dictates the talent pool for a STEM workforce.


Instead, we should be thinking, talking and acting to understand the diversity of STEM pathways. This reflects a modern world of work, which is what the Foundation of Young Australians refers to as the ‘New Work Order’. In this world, it is more likely that a 15 year-old today will have a portfolio career, consisting of about 17 different jobs over five different careers. With technological advances dramatically changing what jobs exist and the need for STEM skills (as well as the increased understanding that this includes skills such as communication and emotional intelligence), the pipeline metaphor is fast becoming an outdated model to understand STEM talent pools and career pathways.


Once you’re out, you have no STEM value

The ‘leaky’ part of the pipeline implies that once you stop studying STEM, or leave the STEM workforce, you are no longer of value or interest to STEM. While it is true that many STEM organisations still require a Bachelors, Masters, or Doctorate in a relevant STEM field, this is becoming more flexible as we recognise the importance of diverse skills, qualifications and work experience. STEM organisations can no longer operate in a STEM vacuum, as challenges like climate change and sustainable development require many more people to solve than just those who have a civil engineering degree.


Using the pipeline metaphor restricts our mindset about the availability of STEM talent. To capitalise on the talent that is out there, STEM organisations need to be more porous. Porosity of organisations and sectors will allow them to attract, retain and value a more diverse cohort, and provides greater resilience to changes in technology, markets, and community expectations.


A convenient excuse

Even though we’ve been talk about gender inequity in STEM for decades (and so you’d think our conversations might evolve and progress a bit), it is still common for senior leaders, Vice-Chancellors and CEOs to lament the ‘pipeline problem’. Today, this phrase is no longer just a comment, it is an excuse.


The pipeline metaphor and its simplistic, linear view of the world has become a convenient excuse for a lack of action or slow progress. The thinking goes that STEM organisation or degrees can only attract those who have ‘pre-qualified’ by being in the previous stage of the pipeline. For STEM companies, this means they automatically lament the insufficient numbers of graduates from relevant degrees as reason why they aren’t doing as well as what we should expect from an organisation in 2020 (see the points above about at pathways and sector porosity).


Continued use of this metaphor allows universities and organisations to pass the buck to the preceding section of the pipeline and does not require them to reflect on how they are attracting, retaining and advancing diverse talent – or rather, how they are not doing this. This was captured well by Melissa Gregg for The Atlantic in 2015:

“The pipeline problem is a way for predominantly male leaders to talk about diversity in a way that avoids talking about this messy reality, not to mention the privileges they themselves have benefitted from.”

An unhelpful oversimplification that homogenises lived experience and skates around the issues

At the end of the day, the pipeline metaphor is an over-simplified tool for people to (try to) explain a complex and nuanced issue. Unhelpfully, the pipeline metaphor homogenises and masks the lived experiences of women and people from minoritized backgrounds, as described by Allen and Castlemaine in Fighting the Pipeline Fallacy:

“[It fails] to acknowledge the complexities of male advantage, gender power, and the gendered nature of organizational dynamics and the implications of organizational change, particularly in relation to restructuring. To embroider the metaphor, the ‘pipeline’ is not uncontrolled. It contains valves and holding bays, deviations and constrictions and it leaks women.”

The pipeline metaphor also only ever looks at the number of people in / out of STEM, instead of the more crucial question of who (not how many) do we have in STEM. A metaphor that reduces people down to a number, and does not capture the diverse skills, mindsets and experiences of potential STEM talent – nor the systemic and structural biases against such talent that are the status quo – does nothing to help us develop a creative and innovative STEM workforce required to respond to increasingly complex global challenges.


Instead of reaching for the easiest and catchiest soundbite, reach for comprehensive understanding of the factors contributing to inequities in STEM, and how we can strive for inclusive systems, processes and cultures for this and the next generation.

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