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Women in STEM, Progressive or Sexist – Issue 10

With men dominating the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics field, Sarah Hyde investigates the changing role of women and the adversities they face when pursuing jobs in STEM.


When I sat down to write this article, I first began by hunting for statistics. A few Google searches of “Women in STEM NZ” didn’t bring up much for me so I had to delve deeper. With the deadline approaching quickly, I found myself scrolling Excel spreadsheets, panicking and floundering. I had the data in front of me, but I needed to translate it into something meaningful. I could read the numbers, but interpreting them properly was another story. I felt swamped, and cursed that “I’m no bloody good at math”. 


Oh no. Without even realising it, I bought into the archaic, patriarchal view that biologically, I’m not hardwired to do maths, so why even try? Leave it to a man, right?


At the start of high school I loved science (and won an award for my investigative science project on the future of mag-lev trains). I was also very good at maths. I’m not quite sure when that changed but by the time I left high school, I was taking social science subjects, had seen a Career Counsellor who directed me firmly along a literary path, and I’d enrolled in Law and Communications at Waikato University. And at no point along the way have I strayed into the STEM fields ever again. 


Why are Women Under-represented in STEM?

There’s no easy answer to the question of why women are under-represented in STEM fields. Most research indicates that it starts with children – girls are given dolls and a mini-baking set, and boys are given Lego and Meccano. Boys seem to be more rewarded for participation in maths and science than english, and girls are encouraged for their work in english, or social studies. It seems to be a self-perpetuating cycle – boys gravitate more towards STEM, so girls participate less; boys dominate the field, and girls achieve less.  


The effects of this division in the early stages flows on, leaving us with fewer women enrolling in STEM at university, fewer graduating and entering a career in a STEM field, which then cycles on around to men continuing to dominate the field, reinforcing the view that being an engineer or a scientist is a “man’s job”. One of the many consequences here, being the gender pay-gap, but whatever the reason, it’s undeniable that men outnumber women in STEM fields.


STEM Enrolment at University

On the whole, New Zealand Universities have more female students than male. Over the last decade, most universities have operated somewhere around a 60/40 split, skewed towards more female students.


It’s surprising then, to see that there are still so many subjects that are absolutely dominated by men. Take the sciences as an example. In 2019, 7,245 female students were enrolled in this discipline at a Bachelors Level, compared to only 5,210 men. But when you break down science into individual categories, men dominate Mathematical Sciences as well as Physics. Women come out on top in Biological Sciences. Likewise, Information Technology is swamped with men – in 2019 more than three times the amount of men enrolled at a Bachelors level in New Zealand than women. Engineering saw the same kind of numbers, as did Architecture.


While roughly the same number of men and women were enrolled in medical studies in 2019, nursing was a female-led subject, and over 10 times the amount of women were enrolled, compared to men. This is comparable to “Society and Culture”, the catchall category including political sciences, law, englic, sport and recreation, amongst others. Across this category women almost double men’s enrolment levels, coming in at 19,385, compared to 9,785.


Now, I’ll accept that I’ve cherry picked statistics here, to give a broad overview, but you get the picture.


Changes to the System

Studies have been noting the disparity in men and women’s STEM enrolment for decades, but it seems to be a bit of a buzz-word topic right now. Increasing women’s participation is on the agenda for organisations all across the globe, including New Zealand universities.  


Take Auckland University, who in 2018 recognised that their female enrolment numbers were lacking, particularly in the Faculty of Engineering, and set a goal to increase the number of females enrolled to 33%, by 2020. At the time they set this goal, they were sitting at 29.15%. Unfortunately, when 2020 rolled around, they’d actually gotten worse and the female students enrolled in Engineering made up 28.6%. The University spoke fairly positively about this downturn, with the Head of Engineering Science Rosalind Archer reaffirming the University’s commitment to recruiting and retaining female students. In a New Zealand Herald article, she said, “boosting enrolment is a long term game… To make more significant change efforts will have to reach further into the school system”.


But that’s just one example, Auckland University aren’t the only ones putting their goals out there, and trying to increase female presence in STEM fields. Engineering New Zealand has created the “Women in Engineering Snapshot”, MBIE says that they’re boosting the “visibility and number of women and girls in STEM” through their Curious Minds project, and the Association of Women in Science (AWIS) designed a tee-shirt in 2020, to “promote women in STEM”.


Is Sexism Driving the Changes? 

The recent push to increase the number of women in STEM fields is worth analysing carefully, (something I won’t really do justice to here). It’s inarguable that STEM fields, and the pathway to a career therein, should be accessible to women. The systemic sexism that’s led to the lack of women in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics fields does need to be broken down, both on a principle and a practical level, ensuring that women are comfortable and encouraged to pursue the discipline of their choosing, at all stages of their life.


But we aren’t seeing the same sort of push to increase the number of men, in traditionally female-dominated fields. There aren’t many campaigns, press releases, or clothing labels dedicated to getting men into nursing and teaching, or social sciences. A big question to ask from here, is do we intrinsically see more STEM fields as “better” and “smarter”?  There’s a perception that if you enrol in STEM fields then you’re smarter and more capable than if you were to enrol in the Arts. And, if you enroll in STEM fields, you’ll get paid better too. But, there’s a very real likelihood that people see STEM fields as “better”, because they’re predominantly full of men.  


Women have every right, and the skills, to be working and earning on par with men in any field.  But when making the push for equality, it’s important not to get lost, and caught up in sexism along the way. Consider why value is being placed upon STEM, and not other fields, such as Liberal Arts, or Humanities; because it’s not just the fields that are considered traditionally “men’s work” that are the most successful, or the best. We do need to break open STEM fields for women, and provide equal opportunities, but we also just need to think about why.