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  • Writer's pictureDr Francesca Maclean


To address challenges with gender inequity of male dominated STEM fields, there is a common through process:

We need more women studying gateway subjects like maths and physics in high school, so then more women study engineering, computer science, and maths at university, and then more women transition to professional careers in industries like technology and engineering. These women show young girls they too belong in those fields – who then study maths and physics and school, go onto study STEM at university etc.

This is what we call the STEM pipeline. We try to get more women in at an early study / career stage, so we can end up with more women in leadership down the track, to then help attract more women through visibility.

There are a few common motivators behind this pursuit of attracting women to STEM:

  • To provide opportunities to stimulating and financially prosperous career pathways like engineering and technology

  • To improve the creative and problem-solving capabilities of these industries by increasing the talent pool

  • To add more women into environments to ‘dilute’ the masculine culture by achieving a critical mass of women

  • To create aspirational role models for younger women, girls, men and boys that also normalise the existence women in STEM

With this approach we are trying to fix the cultures of male dominated STEM fields which continuously exclude women, by getting more women to enter them and hoping culture change happens organically. This also places the onus of change on women, not on anyone else. When we focus on attracting women to STEM it often diverts attention from retaining women, which means we are shoving women into degrees and career pathways in which they are unlikely to want to stay – because they remain dominate by men with toxic masculine cultures not inclusive of women.

According to the 2018 Professionals Australia Women in STEM Survey, 31% of respondents expect to leave their profession in the next five years – or less. The top six reasons for leaving were:

  • A 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

Interestingly, the Professionals Australia Engineers Employment and Remuneration Report found that 13.1% women dropped out between the ages of 20-29 and 30-29 compared to just 1.4% for men. This rings alarm bells, particularly since we know women make up just 13% of professionals in industry.

Knowing that many women leave STEM industries (for good reason) creates an ethical dilemma: how can we continue to sell STEM industries to young women when we know these industries are not designed to include them, or to help them thrive?

When speaking with young women, I now heavily caveat my advice, sharing how to conduct thorough due diligence of potential employers, what support mechanisms to look for, and what policies and processes to keep an eye out for. I can no longer say “go for it, STEM is great!” as that would be a lie. I struggle to believe that bringing more – young and less powerful – women into an industry like engineering will change much.

While there are many programs and schools focusing on increasing the uptake of STEM subjects by girls and young women, our STEM industries need to stop relying on women to fix the gender problems that have plagued them for too long. What can you do instead?

Shift the focus to men. This goes beyond ‘being supportive’ of women (often because having daughters triggers a certain level of awareness…). Explore how your STEM workplaces approach the following issues:

  • Parental leave entitlements

  • Culture and expectations of who takes parental leave

  • Typical or atypical career trajectories

  • Assignment of career opportunities

  • Calling out inappropriate and / or biased behaviour – and dealing with it

  • Inclusive and congruent leadership

  • Learning and development on gender and diversity & inclusion topics

If the experiences or expectations of those issues differ between men and women, there is work to do to change your systems, processes, and cultures.

What will be your first step in making your organisation one in which women can join – and thrive?

PS. You might think the STEM pipeline analogy is a bit simplistic - I agree! Check out this article on the problem with the STEM pipeline if you want to read more.

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