Breaking barriers for women in STEM

Nowhere near a battle already won

Francesca Maclean

Government and governance, Science and technology, Social policy | Australia, The World

6 September 2019

Gender equity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is not an issue that needs solving for the future. Women working in these fields face myriad challenges right now, Francesca Maclean writes.

Gender inequity in STEM – or science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – is often analogised to a ‘pipeline’ problem. We often forget, though, that there are women already in STEM who need better workplace cultures and systems in which they can thrive.

They aren’t the girls who are yet to choose their Year 12 subjects, and they aren’t the women who have been pushed out of the industry – yet. These are your early-career women in STEM, and I am one of them.

I grew up with the notion that gender equality was a battle already won: my mum worked throughout my childhood and I was told I could be and do anything. I had parents who steered me into STEM, and I ended up being one of less than 1,000 women who graduated with a professional engineering degree in 2013 in Australia.

I continued to do a PhD and soon after found myself at a top-tier engineering firm. I’ve experienced STEM as a woman both in academia and industry, and I can assure you, gender equality is not a battle already won.

There are three main barriers that aspiring, early-career women in STEM face.

More on this: Avoiding a STEM funding failure

Toxically masculine competition culture is the first of these. No matter how far we have come with our paid parental leave or flexible work policies when workplaces were designed in the literal absence of women, it is no surprise that they have a legacy of toxically masculine competition culture.

When you are working – trying to survive – within a system that was never designed for you, it can take an emotional, mental, and physical toll that is not worth the 23.78 per cent pay gap.

Secondly, a lack of critical mass and senior female role models hinders early-career women from reaching their full potential in STEM. While representation varies across disciplines, those that have traditionally been male-dominated remain so.

Women currently make up 12 per cent of Australia’s engineering workforce. These women lack a critical mass across their organisations, and even more so in leadership. Professional, scientific, and technical services organisations report having 25.7 per cent women in key management roles and even fewer as heads of businesses.

When you’re often the only woman in the room, being heard, receiving credit for your own ideas and work, as well as not being interrupted, all pose an additional challenge on top of just doing the job.

For the few women who have made it to the senior ranks, they are expected to fly the flag for every diversity-related event and issue, and they can easily become overloaded with these undervalued ‘service’ activities in both industry and academia.

Third, gender is still seen as a women’s issue: women are expected to fight the gender fight, both in the community and in the workplace. This is an outdated and yet sadly common approach to gender equality.

In STEM organisations, both in academia and industry, women often take on the unpaid work to champion gender equality – and let’s not forget the emotional labour that comes along with it.

More on this: Tackling gender equity in science

Are all women gender experts? No. Do men have a gender, and are they affected by gender inequity? Yes. Yet we encourage women, almost exclusively, to champion gender equity while doing their day job.

Further, we then evaluate them against men who are only responsible for doing their day job and are not weighed down by these extra responsibilities, when it comes to promotion time.

These barriers manifest in workplace cultures, which makes them incredibly complex to address. But we have to do something, otherwise, we will continue to have technology designed for only half the population.

Several policy levers could be used to mitigate these barriers.

A good place to start would be to evaluate women’s lived experiences. Australia uses the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) to report on the metrics, policies, and processes.

What’s missing is an understanding of the personal experience of women in STEM. Yes, numbers can give you some indication, but not all women can talk with their feet and leave an organisation if it is a toxic or inequitable workplace.

The government could mandate that organisations incorporate anonymous internal cultural audits that would add to the richness of data. This could authentically assess an organisation’s performance on gender equity and provide early-career women with another data point on which they can evaluate prospective employers.

More on this: Policy Forum Podcast: Women in politics and policy

Additionally, STEM re-traineeships for women 35 years and older to move laterally into the sector from un- or under-employment – or other careers such as education, business, or law –  would improve the number of women and address the lack of senior women in STEM organisations.

Not all management and leadership roles in STEM need 20 or more years of experience in the same discipline. Through a collaborative approach between government, academia, and industry, we could significantly widen the talent pool and improve the diversity of thought, skills, and role models needed in STEM.

Lastly, better gender education could help address the issues in the sector. There is a severe lack of understanding and knowledge across institutions about gender equity, which is why it is often misinterpreted as a women’s issue.

We’ve done this before. Workplace health and safety was not always a thread of our organisations, but now it is highly regulated through the likes of Safe Work Australia and Worksafe.

Initially, it’s a scary thought – inclusion is not a compliance issue. However, safety in the workplace was a huge culture change that needed to happen, and it did.

If all institutions treated gender equity and diversity and inclusion that seriously, we might achieve gender equity a little sooner than in the year 2187.

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