Gender representation in STEM – the facts
Despite the vital role that STEM professionals play in business and industry, women remain significantly underrepresented compared with their male counterparts in STEM. Across the board, women are underrepresented as a proportion of qualified STEM graduates, as a proportion of STEM staff in the workplace, and as a proportion of employees in higher-paid positions.
The number of women in Australia qualified in STEM fields is significantly lower than males. Only 16% of the qualified STEM population is comprised of women. Despite this underrepresentation, the number of women with tertiary qualifications in STEM is increasing, rising by 23% between 2006 and 2011. The number of women with tertiary qualifications outside of STEM however increased by 31% over the same period, suggesting that the STEM fields are still falling behind other fields in encouraging gender diversity.
The gender distribution of tertiary qualifications differs significantly by field, with some fields performing better than others. Women account for 48% of the qualified population in science, 40% in mathematics, and 30% in agricultural and environmental science. Conversely, qualified women form only 25% of the IT labour force and 6% of engineers.
While the number of women undertaking STEM qualifications is low, female representation in the workplace is somewhat better. Across all sectors, women represent 27% of the STEM workforce. However, even among those women who are both qualified and employed in STEM roles, representation in management and higher-paid roles remains low. Only 12% of women in STEM fall into the top income bracket (above $104,000), while 32% of males are employed in this bracket. Similarly, only 13% of women with a bachelor degree or higher are employed as managers, compared with 20% of men. This means that there are almost four times as many men employed in management roles than women.
Does the “boys’ club” play a role in these figures? What does Professionals Australia’s survey work show?
So these are the stats – does the “boys’ club” play a role in these figures – is it part of how women professionals experience gender discrimination in STEM workplaces?
The findings of the Professionals Australia Slower Track report was based on over 400 responses to an online survey of women members in the STEM professions. The survey looked at the obstacles to women’s advancement in the STEM fields and the factors that can contribute to the underrepresentation of women STEM graduates, in the STEM workforce and in STEM leadership and management roles.
- 9% of respondents said they felt like they had to “become one of the boys” if they wanted to fit into their workplace;
- 55% agreed or strongly agreed that in their occupation, women have to prove themselves, where men are assumed to be capable;
- Only 38.1% agreed or strongly agreed that clients respect the professional opinion or advice of women and men equally; 31.9% disagreed;
- 3% said that in their workplace, advice or information of a technical nature was less likely to be listened to if provided by a woman than a man;
- 2% of respondents said that workplace culture had detrimentally impacted their career advancement to a significant or moderate extent;
- 6% said they were seen as not pulling their weight because they used flexible work arrangements;
- Nearly 40.0% of respondents had been bullied and 38% discriminated against in the course of their professional employment;
- Nearly 20.0% reported that they had been sexually harassed. Figures for sexual harassment and discrimination were higher in male-dominated professions; and
- 8% of respondents said their employer had good work/life balance policies but the culture of the organisation did not support it.
The survey also sought women’s comments on a range of workplace practices to understand if and how women experienced gender discrimination in their workplace. Some survey respondents framed their comments and analysis in terms of the boys’ club – most resented it and felt it worked against merit-based advancement in the workplace:
- I have worked in an organisation where the ‘boys club’ was a distinct barrier to career progression (not just to women, but to all those who were not ‘in the club’).
- I was prevented from joining projects as I was not “one of his (a male manager’s) boys”.
- Working in a boys’ club has affected my career.
- I think there is often an unconscious bias against women progressing in senior positions in a male-dominated field. It feels like a ‘boys club’ at times and career progression is not always based on merit.
- The boys’ club culture in the mining industry has been a significant hindrance to advancement.
- I work in an industry with a boys’ club mentality.
Professionals Australia also did some work in the area of unconscious bias and many of the comments there were similarly framed in terms of the boys club:
- I am the only woman civil engineer as a technical specialist in a group, and not a part of boys’ club, can’t drink eat and smoke with them as I don’t practice such habits.
- I have experienced men not liking women who are more intelligent than them, who speak their mind and are strong, who aren’t part of a boys’ club.
Is there a down side to looking at gender bias in terms of the boys’ club?
Given that women do describe their experience of gender discrimination in the workplace in terms of the boys’ club, what are its limitations as a way of looking at gender bias in the STEM workforce? The problem with leaving an analysis of gender discrimination in the workplace at this level is that it fails to challenge a deterministic or essentialist argument that boys are the problem. It neglects to look at the complex and interrelated institutional and systemic barriers that underpin gender bias. In a 2010 article “The secretive, rough boys’ clubs”, Germaine Greer says: “.. from the time they are small, male humans are moved to form groups that exclude females. Female humans, by contrast, are not moved to form groups that exclude males. She goes on to say that “The point of such observations is not to prove that men are innately evil, warlike and undemocratic, but to point to a kind of human behaviour that will have to be transformed if we are to survive”. The issue with such an approach to gender discrimination in the workplace is that, to be effective, the locus for change on workplace gender bias must go beyond changes to human behaviour to changes in workplace practices, institutional systems and culture. The approach doesn’t acknowledge the complexity and persistence of entrenched systemic gender discrimination.
So – given that women can experience gender discrimination in terms of the boys’ club, but also acknowledging the limitations of characterising workplace gender bias just as a boy’s club problem – how can you practically explore whether gender bias and discrimination might be issues in your workplace and the systemic practices that can give rise to them? Consider this series of questions as a way of making your own assessment.
 Professionals Australia (2015). The Slower Track: Women in the STEM professions survey report.
Do workplace culture and practices operate in your workplace to create gender bias?
Is there a gendered allocation of work/roles?
A gendered allocation of roles creates a workplace characterised by gender segregation and very often a gender pay gap – women may be over-represented in less secure, lower paid, lower status and less responsible roles and under-represented in senior, management or leadership roles, or it can be more informal like women being asked to take minutes, get refreshments for a meeting or perform administrative tasks. Where a gendered allocation of work exists, that work is usually not valued as highly including in monetary terms. As well as looking at the formal roles, consider the unofficial roles like Fire Officers, who puts the wheelie bins out, who arranges morning teas, who gets the milk for the fridge?
Are business discussions and decisions made in arenas that may exclude women or in activities in which women cannot or prefer not to participate?
Such as the golf course, at smoko, gentlemen’s clubs, exclusive male-only lunch clubs, etc. These practices can create a culture of insiders and outsiders, and sanction other excluding practices. Women may not be in a position or may prefer not to participate in these social and/or networking activities for a range of reasons. This can lead to isolation, having limited access to informal mentoring or being left out of the loop on information vital to properly undertaking your role and/or gaining a broader perspective.
Are women trying to do their work well sidelined or stymied?
This can take multiple forms – not being offered training, being allocated less responsible work generally or on return from career break, being excluded from high-level projects, not being defended when subjected to stereotyping or malicious gossip, habitual dismissal of the value of your work and a failure to defend your value by the relevant manager. It can range from not being cc’d on relevant emails to the appropriation of your initiatives by someone who then claims them as their own. Usually it’s insidious and infuriating.
Is diversity and inclusion seen as “women’s work” and not part of the organisation’s core work or the bottom line?
If the only advocates for diversity and inclusion in the organisation are women – no champions of change, or semi-committed champions who champion women’s work outwardly but not beyond the formal structures, the conversation about the role of diversity and inclusion is not being seen as central to the bottom line. If the diversity discussion never gets beyond the basics with gender initiatives regarded either openly or behind the scenes as unfairly favouring women and disadvantaging men, and diversity initiatives fall to the bottom of the pile, then diversity is not being regarded as one of the primary means of improving productivity at the enterprise level.
The potential for diversity initiatives to deliver a diversity advantage in terms of innovation, problem-solving, decision-making, better governance, increased sales and improved business performance is being lost.
Does the workplace culture differentially impact men and women? Do women have to work twice as hard to have their value recognised?
Again, this can take multiple forms including a culture of long hours that disadvantages those with carer responsibilities, sexist or inappropriate banter that is sometimes difficult to distance yourself from, a tolerance for sexist practices, language and behaviours, a tolerance for talking over women in meetings, promoting only from the ranks of full-time staff, KPIs or measures of outcomes that disadvantage women or reinforce unconscious bias in workplace practices.
Is there a gendered allocation of activities involving travel?
Travel and in turn access to networking and professional development may be more difficult for those with carer responsibilities, or the assumption can be made that a person with carer responsibilities will not be available so they may not be invited to take part in activities requiring travel.
Do you ever feel annoyed with yourself that you went along with a sexist joke rather than objecting and wish you’d have thought of what to say at the time?
Women who do not take part in inappropriate or sexist banter may risk being stereotyped as “not a good sport”, prudish, lacking a sense of humour and “can’t take a joke”. This approach can be taken in the name of a “modern” liberated workplace but what’s really going on is a tolerance for inappropriate practices and a failure to set and observe respectful workplace boundaries and/or different cultures.
Are work meetings held outside school hours, important deadlines set and emails sent after hours?
These workplace practices clearly limit the participation of those with carer responsibilities.
Are senior, management and leadership roles selected from those with direct, confident, powerful and charismatic leadership styles?
Recognising only this form of leadership style marginalises those who lead in different ways such as those influencing by consensus and teamwork, who choose not to promote themselves and don’t speak assertively in leadership meetings for cultural reasons or by choice.
Is there a lack of female role models in senior, management and leadership roles? Do the dynamics of meetings marginalise women’s contribution?
Where women lack the old boys’ networks, there may be a lack of contacts higher up in the organisation and beyond, so opportunities to assist with advancement or to provide formal or informal mentoring are fewer. An absence of modelling of successful managers and leaders who have effectively balanced work and family responsibilities and/or who have different leadership styles makes it more difficult to broaden the talent pool from which leaders and managers are selected. The gender dynamics of communication at meetings can marginalise women’s contribution.
Are those who work part-time seen as less committed to their work or less professional?
Those who work part-time work can be stereotyped as less professional and less committed to their work. There is no evidence to support this.
Do women who don’t apprise their manager of their accomplishments and actively seek and receive feedback fail to receive proper credit for their work?
Those who put their head down and work hard, innovate or exceed KPIs but don’t self-promote can be at a disadvantage in a workplace that relies on these strategies for advancement.
Are senior women negatively stereotyped?
Negative stereotyping takes many forms but almost always functions to diminish the credibility and respect for the relevant professional. Women can be viewed as bringing a set of “deficiencies” to the workplace, including a lack of competitiveness, risk taking, hard-nosed negotiation skills or assertiveness or as having too “consultative” a style, or conversely as being bitchy, ballbusters or nags if they’re seen as overly assertive.
Are there embedded and entrenched bias in the policies, rules, attitudes and practices in your workplace?
Unconscious bias takes many forms, the most common being that recruitment and advancement is underpinned by in-group bias – this means that those doing the recruiting and responsible for advancement decision-making favour those like themselves and this can perpetuate bias and disadvantage for women. This can occur even in workplaces which consider their advancement strategies merit-based.