International Women’s Day and the Under-representation of women in STEM fields

March 8 is International Women’s Day, and despite pushes to get more girls to study Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics subjects, women are still underrepresented in the engineering industry. This week we are celebrating women in engineering, and will discuss common challenges they face and how some have found ways to overcome them.

In Australia, women who have studied the same university course as men are viewed as less talented in job interviews, and when they do get the job, they are paid an average $2,200 less each year than a man.

Though discrimination laws are in place, women are still less likely to achieve leadership roles.  Latest national figures show that only 16 per cent of those in chief executive roles are women. And while many use maternity leave and part-time work trends to justify the gap, Dr Vicki Gardiner, general manager of Engineers Australia Tasmania, says the problem begins at getting more women into engineering, as only 13 per cent of the professionals in Australia are women.

There’s a lack of women in leadership positions in the male-dominated STEM fields, and “girls tend to avoid workplaces where they feel like an outsider,” says Dr Gardiner. And this can be seen, not only in Australia, but all around the world.

In the USA, recent Oscar nominated ‘Hidden Figures’ has resonated with female STEM students. Uloma Okoro, Tsewone Melaku and Naomi Zemeadim, students at the University of Washington, reflect on the challenges of being black women in the male-dominated industry.

Okoro said it’s hard to find a place where she feels she belongs in her electrical engineering major.

According to a 2013 report by the National Science Foundation, minority women represent less than 10 per cent of employed scientists and engineers. Zemadim believes this comes from the present lack of representation, “minority girls don’t see women like themselves in STEM carers, so they are less likely to pursue a similar career themselves.”

“When you’re a kid, you only see black women in certain roles, and as a kid, you think black people do this, so I have to do it too,” adds Melaku.

Dr Gardiner says that confidence is the key for women to overcome these challenges and get into leadership roles in this very inflexible, male-dominated industry. “When women are looking for a job, they look at the list of things they need to do and say, ‘Yes, I can do all those, but not that one, so I won’t go for it,’ whereas men will say ‘I can do three-quarters of them, I’ll give it a whirl,’” she explains.

“The big thing is just having that confidence and reminding yourself that you are capable of doing different things,” Dr Gardiner concludes.


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