Higher education STEM gender imbalance remains

Published

Women in lab

Credit: George Joch, courtesy Argonne National Laboratory

Laurie Clark
Writer

The gender imbalance in STEM fields has long been subject to scrutiny. While a prevalent gender-gap in higher education recently prompted demands for more male students to be admitted into Scottish universities, STEM maintains an anomalous male majority.

The University of Glasgow is no exception, as records dating back to 2011 establish a consistent female majority in the overall student population. In the academic year 2015-16, female students outnumbered male by 4,638, the highest discrepancy on record. While the student body has been steadily increasing across the board, the female majority has increased by 1,592 between the academic years of 2011-12 and 2015-16.

Despite this discrepancy, the male majority in the college of Science and Engineering has persevered and remained largely static. In 2016, the Perkins’ Review of Engineering Skills revealed that the UK was responsible for Europe’s largest deficit of female engineering professionals, who comprised a third of those in Cyprus, Latvia and Bulgaria (less than 10% compared to just under 30%). Although women continue to be outnumbered in these fields, studies have found a growing need for these roles to be fulfilled. In 2015, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council found that 64% of employers in the sector were concerned over a dearth of engineers in the UK, and that the number of engineering students would need to double at the very least to meet demand. In 2013, Vince Cable addressed the “psychological barrier” facing young women in STEM fields, which he said could lead to “enormous problems” for the UK. In 2014, the UK government responded to these concerns with an investment of £20m to facilitate female engineers in the workforce.

In the current academic year, 2,204 female students are enrolled in the College of Science and Engineering at undergraduate and postgraduate level, marking a slight decline from the previous year’s total of 2,321. Professor Muffy Calder, Head of Science and Engineering, commented on the “mixed picture” of female STEM students at Glasgow University. Professor Calder highlighted a growing female student body in undergraduate fields; 60% in Geography & Earth Sciences, nearly 80% in Psychology, and 45% in both Mathematics & Statistics and Chemistry. She said “this is good news at Glasgow, and reflects many of the local initiatives such as new degree programmes (e.g. Biomedical Engineering), a strong female presence at open days, networking events and seminars featuring prominent female researchers, and monitoring of student application data to ensure no gender bias.”

Professor Calder is aware, however, that there is much progress to be made, and that universities play a vital role to see new generations of women pursue careers in STEM: “In disciplines where there are lower numbers of women applying for entry, universities can help to ensure that school curricula are relevant and engaging, and that young people know which Highers are required and the possible careers after university. I am proud of many colleagues who devote a lot of their time and energy to addressing exactly these issues. But I am also aware there are broader societal issues at play, for example the status of Engineers in the UK compared with some other professions. I suspect that how to tackle this one is the most difficult questions of all.”