Why is there still a gender imbalance in STEM careers?



Katy Scott

In light of the recent International Women’s week, it seems fitting to discuss the enduring gender disproportion within characteristically “masculine” subjects – such as engineering – and the careers which follow.

Ellen Simmons, current president of  Glasgow University’s Female Engineers (FEMENG) blames the gender gap on the “lack of inspirational role models” and “unconscious gender biases in school and sometimes even from parents”.

Statistics from Women’s Engineering Society (WES) suggest that only 9% of the engineering workforce is female. The UK in particular has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe.

At the University of Glasgow, the College of Science and Engineering holds a male majority at all levels of study. While 60% of all undergraduate and postgraduate students studying at the University of Glasgow are female, for undergraduate physics students the percentage falls to as low as 25%

It is only natural to wonder – why are so few women choosing to study engineering, and certain other STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects? What is being done to improve this low amount, if a negative reason for it exists?

A recent study into gender bias in the technology industry found that women often out-performed men in some of the most male-dominated subjects, such as computer science. This is surprising, as the lack of women participating in computer science is well known and roughly 80% of computer science undergraduates in the UK are male.  The researchers carrying out the study discovered that code written by a woman was more likely to be approved by peers than code written by a man, however this was only the case if it was not revealed that the code was written by a woman. No matter how capable women may be in STEM subjects, prejudice against them exists nonetheless.

It is worth noting at this point that other stereotypically masculine subjects do not display such drastic unevenness – subjects such as chemistry and mathematics generally maintain a relative evenness on both sides.

A recent discussion was held by the Women In STEM Society (WiSTEM) at the University of Glasgow in order to investigate the “Missing Women in STEM” careers, compared to the reasonable intake of female undergraduate STEM students at universities. Many on the panel suggested that a “bottleneck” exists at around the age of 30 and many women disappear from STEM careers after this point. This is usually when the person in question has achieved an undergraduate and postgraduate degree and completed some research in their area of expertise.

The recent controversy surrounding the EDF Energy competition “Pretty Curious” was also discussed. “Pretty Curious” was an all-inclusive competition aimed at persuading young girls to participate in engineering, yet the winner was a boy. If this were a competition aimed at including more people in general in engineering, there would be no issue, but the fact that it was so clearly aimed at girls and then won by a boy would probably do more harm to the gender inequity than good.

Despite this, it is important to consider both sides of the imbalance. It could be argued that men are often deciding against pursuing careers in typically “feminine” subjects. Generally each year, there is a larger intake of female undergraduates than male and statistics suggest that subjects such as veterinary science, education and social work remain female dominated. There is a shortage of men participating in these jobs – in some cases even more so than of women in engineering jobs. This disparity could be considered two sided and consequently affect both men and women negatively and if we want to dispel gender stereotypes associated with certain subjects, it must be confronted on both sides.

This idea of men abstaining from studying culturally feminine subjects is further supported by the idea that once a profession is female-dominated, it tends to become devalued. Prime examples include primary teachers and nurses – these jobs are often, for some reason, considered easy. It is often deemed laughable by some to come across a male nurse. Nursing is a “feminine” job and is therefore sometimes thought to be not quite a suitable profession for a man to pursue. Such dismissiveness towards stereotypically female jobs is indisputably damaging to both genders. Surely, the success of women in healthcare and education should be celebrated – not mocked and considered below the capabilities of men.

This trivializing attitude to the contribution of women is sadly prominent in areas such as physics. When we look back on the history of the most celebrated physicists, only one woman tends to regularly appear – Marie Curie, the first recipient of two Nobel prizes and the first woman to ever receive a Nobel Prize in general. However, despite her immense contributions to science, Curie was not allowed to deliver the keynote lecture that recipients of a Nobel Prize give – as she was a woman.

A number of ideas have been tested in hopes of diversifying subjects such as physics and engineering. Outreach programmes are prevalent at a number of schools such as the many “Girls into Physics” days that have been held across Scotland and STEM ambassadors can often be found in schools around the country, aiming to promote their subject of expertise to everyone. The Institute of Physics (IOP) runs a number of projects to promote the uptake of STEM subjects by girls aged 16+.

The University of Glasgow currently holds an Athena Scientific Women’s Academic Network (SWAN) Bronze award. Athena SWAN recognizes an institution’s commitment to achieving diversity in STEM  and the University hopes that by implementing the actions in the Athena SWAN plan and its own Gender Equality Development Framework, gender diversity at the university will be enhanced. The actions laid out are aimed at increasing the gender diversity in both STEM and non-STEM subjects.

Ellen Simmons said: “Sometimes what is restraining girls from exploring engineering is that they do not really know exactly what ‘engineering’ entails. They are not necessarily looking to work in a shipyard or a construction site and are unaware of just how many different ways engineering can manifest in our society”.

Ellen founded FemEng a few years ago in the hope of lessening the gender gap in engineering. FemEng take females currently studying engineering into schools to talk about the different courses they study and about what attracted them to engineering. FemEng also invites alumni back to the University to talk about their career paths as women in engineering. Additionally, the society conducts surveys to investigate the attitudes of male and female students towards the shortage of women in engineering.

Ellen added: “There is not just one solution, but by providing a network of support from school right up to post-graduation and beyond, there is hope that this will not remain a topic of concern for the next generation”.

It is to be hoped that the push to increase the number of women working in STEM will not be in vain. Overall, we have undeniably lost many ideas by systematically cutting women off from the scientific debate and this drastically weakens the impact that science could truly have.