The Gap for Women in STEM by Dr Hannah Coughlan

29 September

Opinion piece published in www.growingtallpoppies.com by Dr Hannah Coughlan

Within STEM fields of Australia there is a gap for women; a gap of pay and numbers. According to the 2016 report from the Office of the Chief Scientist on Australia’s STEM workforce [1] there are almost three times (32% compared to 12%) more male STEM graduates earning in the top income bracket compared to women. Even when including part-time positions and women taking time off for children, women are earning less than their male colleagues and are underrepresented in senior positions. At the student level, the gap between the numbers of women and men is smaller in STEM (60% versus 40%) but begins to increase at the senior post-doctoral level (70% versus 30%) and is significant at the senior level (85% versus 15%) [2]. As a woman working at the junior post-doctoral level, I find this confronting.

But how can we decrease the gap for women in science? I believe we need multiple approaches to break down the complex factors contributing to women being disadvantaged in STEM. Women are not less interested in STEM fields nor are women less capable. Gender bias, lack of role models and lack of confidence in ability all contribute to the gap. I think we need to approach the problem in both the short and long-term to begin to make a change.

For long-term change, we need to encourage young women to choose STEM by changing social expectations around traditionally male fields. Women tend to be more cautious and lack confidence in their ability in STEM, particularly mathematics [3]. The numbers of women involved in STEM increases with an inclusive environment, this has been observed in other countries with the engineering field (~40% women in China and Malaysia, compared to ~14% in western countries) [3]. Programs such as Growing Tall Poppies can counteract the lack of confidence as girls are encouraged and supported to engage with STEM. Additionally, through outreach programs, girls are exposed to positive roles models which help to counteract stereotypes and increase the confidence of women contributing to them choosing STEM [4].

In the short term, I believe we need to use quotas to ensure 50% of positions in STEM are filled by women. A quota is a minimum target that needs to be met by an employer i.e. 50% of senior academic positions must be held by women. Unfortunately, gender bias, whether conscious or unconscious, contributes to fewer women in senior roles. Enforcing quotas at junior and middle levels also ensures there is a pool of women who can be promoted to senior positions.

If we combine long-term and short-term approaches, hopefully we will have more girls choosing STEM and the follow-on effect will mean there will have more women in senior positions.  I am hopeful this will reduce the gap and create role models for future generations.

References
[1] Office of the Chief Scientist (2016) Australia’s STEM Workforce: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Australian Government, Canberra.
[2] SAGE: Science in Australia Gender Equity (2016) Gender Equity in STEMM http://www.sciencegenderequity.org.au/gender-equity-in-stem/, accessed: 23/11/2017. Data source: Higher Education Research Data, 2014.  
[3] Prinsley. R., Beavis. A. S., & Clifford-Hordacre. N (2016), Busting Myths About Women in STEM, Office of the Chief Scientist, Australian Government, Canberra.
[4] Cheryan S., Ziegler S. A., Montoya A. K., & Jiang L. (2016) Why Are Some STEM Fields More Gender Balanced Than Others? Psychological Bulletin.

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