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  • Writer's pictureDr Francesca Maclean


When talking to young men about gender equity in STEM, our conversation somehow always turns to women-only scholarships.

“I’ve worked hard to get where I am, why shouldn’t I get a scholarship?”

It is curious that these young men (often cis, white, and middle to upper class) focus on this one issue, and generally ignore the privilege they have been the beneficiaries of their whole lifetime. Women-only scholarships seem to fly in the face of ‘fairness’ for many people, and on the surface, it could seem that way.

But if you attempt to dig a little deeper into the issue, a whole other story emerges.

While more women than men graduate from university in Australia, in STEM we still see an over-representation of men in degrees like engineering, computer science and maths. Let’s not forget these degrees are often gateways to the higher-paid professions than the life sciences career destinations in which women dominate the undergraduate numbers, or that there is a pay gap of 27.5% in professional, scientific, and technical services. Unlike men, women face systemic and cultural barriers to their full participation in STEM degrees at university. These barriers include, but are not limited to: biased toys marketed to them which develop STEM-critical skills, discouragement from selecting maths and science subjects in senior school years, biased and overtly-masculine science curriculum, and biased careers advice that recommends law and medicine over STEM.

Attracting women to engineering

It is no wonder universities are struggling to attract women students to engineering and computer science degrees: there is a whole system that is designed to exclude them from entering those very degrees. So, to improve on the 16% of undergraduate engineering students who are women, they attempt some interventions to attract more women, including scholarships.

I am a beneficiary of one of those scholarships.

With all of my other preferences to study law, I selected an engineering degree because it sounded cool, I loved Canberra, and – they paid me $5,000 to do so. I received the Women’s R&D Excellence Scholarship which was a one-off payment in first-year and… nothing else. It got me enrolled in the degree and improved their gender numbers. That’s all.

I can tell you that money made no difference to my experience as a woman in engineering. It didn’t stop my male peers discrediting my achievements because of my gender, and it didn’t stop lecturers making sexist remarks to me in front of my male peers. It didn’t help me form networks as a 17-year old woman from Darwin with no connections in Canberra, and it didn’t mean that I had more than 3 women lecturers out of 40 courses throughout my degree. Yes, money always helps us live in a capitalist society, but if we look at what the real issues are for women in STEM, women-only scholarships do very little to address them.

What women-only scholarships do is get women into another system that isn’t designed to include them, but not much else. In reviewing women-only scholarships offered for engineering degrees in Australia, they range from $3,000-$7,500 and the majority of them are one-off payments in first-year – and require full-time study, easily ruling out many people with diverse learning and financial needs. There are only a handful of scholarships that provide payments throughout the life of the degree, but there is no reporting publicly available to prove the efficacy of these scholarships in not just retaining but improving the experience of women throughout their engineering degrees, or even improving the likelihood of them transitioning to engineering career destinations.

There are some universities that provide industry-sponsored women-only scholarships, which could be more promising in creating industry connections and valuable work experience for the women recipients. Again, only a few of them offer work experience, and ironically most of them feature middle-aged white men talking about how important diversity is to their business. Ha. There is also no reporting available on the efficacy of these scholarships in improving gender equity in engineering – but this lack of impact reporting is not confined to just scholarships, rather it is a systemic issue across many gender equity interventions.

Addressing systemic barriers

So, when young men lament the unfairness of women-only scholarships, I can only put it in perspective for them. I would happily have traded that $5,000 in first-year for people who would make eye-contact and talk to me in tutorials, to be fully included in my engineering student community, to be respected by my male lecturers and peers for my intellect and personality, and to have seen a diverse range of women role models thriving in engineering.

The privilege of being a young man in engineering is worth a lot more than $5,000, trust me.

While I say these scholarships get women into engineering and not much else, that is not to say that attracting women these degrees is not important. Women-scholarships are just one way universities try to attract more women into STEM degrees, because they are fighting an uphill battle. However, it isn’t just an attraction or supply problem. There are women who enter engineering at university and soon decide it is not for them. The teaching styles, the social and communication skills, and overall culture that is at best competitive and at worst a toxic masculine culture are just some of the reasons why women aren’t retained in these degrees. Then we see in engineering that while women make up 16% of undergraduate students, only 12% of professionals are women. Sigh.

Until we have a more co-ordinated and holistic approach to tackling the systemic barriers to gender equity in STEM, I do believe women-only scholarships have their place. But, I think universities owe those women recipients more than just a one-off payment. They should incentivise not just with money, but with mentoring, sponsorship, industry connections, pastoral care – and accountability for their wellbeing. Most of those things are missing for many students, but for women in engineering they can make the difference between transferring to a law degree or becoming a world-class engineer shaping our world for the better. Universities need to better change their systems and cultures to include people of all backgrounds, not just middle to upper class white cis-men.

And what do I say to those young men unconvinced that these scholarships are fair? Look at the whole system, not just your part of the world and think about how natural or easy your journey to and within engineering was. And now think about what it’s like to be a woman trying to make that same journey – it’s not quite the same. At the end of the day, you have to check your privilege and start dismantling the gendered barriers that limit us all.

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