Women in STEM – it’s time to try positive discrimination

04 April 2023 Consultancy.com.au 8 min. read

Despite the introduction of countless women-focused STEM initiatives and encouraging growth in the number of women studying STEM degrees, decades of investment have made little difference at the workforce level. Steph Ryan and Barbara Messerle from Nous Group makes the case for positive discrimination.

Over the past years, promising progress has been made at the university level, with increased representation of women across STEM degrees. The Australian Government’s STEM Equity Monitor reveals that between 2015 and 2020 the number of women studying STEM increased by 24 per cent, compared to a 9 per cent increase for men.

The numbers are similar in the United Kingdom: a 71 per cent increase for women and 27 per cent increase for men between 2014 and 2019. Women are also 1.6 times more likely to complete their STEM degrees than are their male colleagues.

Women have been making up a growing proportion of Australian enrolments in STEM-related degrees

While these results appear encouraging, there are caveats. There are significant variations in the proportions of women studying across STEM and related fields.

In health courses, women significantly outnumber men (71 per cent are women), but at the other end of the spectrum women represent a very small proportion of the people studying engineering (13 per cent), architecture and building (19 per cent) or IT (23 per cent).

Regardless, it is clear that myriad STEM initiatives have succeeded in inspiring more women to pursue a STEM education.

The proportion of women studying varies greatly across STEM and related fields

From education to the workforce?

However, there has been little change in the proportion of women working in STEM occupations Only one in 10 women with a STEM qualification continue to work in the field following their degree, compared to one in five men.

Despite significant investment, the proportion of STEM roles filled by women has only increased five percentage points in the past decade (to 15 per cent).

The gender split across STEM occupations has changed little over 12 years

Women are consistently underrepresented in senior roles across industry and academia. Only 23 per cent of senior management positions in STEM are held by women, lower than the Australian all-industry average (37 per cent). Likewise, in academia, only 24 per cent of the 2021 Australian Research Council-funded grants and 35 per cent of National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC)-funded grants had female chief investigators.

And the numbers are going backwards. Those few women are leaving the workforce, now at a greater rate than ever before.

In 2021, Professionals Australia found that 34 per cent of women in STEM expected to leave their profession within five years, an increase of 3 percentage points from the previous survey in 2015. Concerningly, these figures are higher for younger women (40 per cent for women under 25).

Comments from survey respondents re-iterated well-known barriers, such as limited promotion opportunities, negative workplace culture and stereotyping as reasons for leaving their role.

The issue of gender representation in the STEM workforce is global. For example, the German Rectors’ Conference has expressed concern about stagnation in gender equality in science, particularly female representation in professorships, and calls for more comprehensive structural change.

The need for action

An increase of 0.5 per cent per year for women in STEM professions means we are looking at another 70 years before women are equally represented in STEM. Unless we are willing to wait another 70 years, we will need to take action.

More radical steps can, and have, been taken to uplift the roles of women in other fields. And it’s working. Organisations have found quotas and other forms of positive discrimination to be effective mechanisms for increasing female representation in previously male-dominates fields

We think it is time to look closely at positive discrimination, in line with the Australian Human Rights Commission’s definition: “Special measures [that] aim to foster greater equality by supporting groups of people who face, or have faced, entrenched discrimination so they can have similar access to opportunities as others in the community.”

Positive discrimination has received criticism from both men and women. Many women, not only in STEM, have received demeaning comments, such as being told they ”only got to where they were because they were a woman”. Some feel these experiences undermine progress for women and contribute to negative sentiment. However, it is clear that women face the challenge of needing to prove their worth regardless of whether positive discrimination measures are in place.

It is time to rip off the Band Aid. Being uncomfortable for a short time is the price we need to pay for women to gain better representation in STEM.

Four use cases

We have identified other domains in which positive discrimination has been adopted.

STEM education
The University of Technology Sydney has significantly increased the share of women in engineering and IT degrees by awarding an additional 10 ATAR points for women applying for 20 undergraduate courses, leading to a 109 per cent increase in female enrolments between 2019 and 2022.

As Ian Burnett, the former Dean of Engineering and IT at University of Technology Sydney, said: “The good news is that there is no discernible difference in success, retention or other measures.”

Meanwhile, a new UK university has taken a unique approach to reduce barriers for entering STEM. Students at the New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering can study engineering without high school physics or maths.

Quotas have been used to increase the number of women in parliament. Seven of the 10 countries with the highest percentages of women in their lower house of parliament have set quotas and on average experienced a 33 per cent increase in the proportion of female parliamentarians between 1997 and 2021.

Quotas are in place for the majority of the top 10 countries by proportion of women in their lower house of parliament

The Australian Labor Party (ALP) implemented quotas in 1994, and there has since been a 34 per cent increase in the percentage of female ALP parliamentarians in the Australian Parliament

These quotas have lifted the profile of women in parliament, normalised female representation and challenged other parties to improve their performance.

STEMM (STEM plus medicine) research
Newer initiatives include the NHMRC’s commitment to provide equal opportunity for women and men applying for elite medical research grants. From 2023 the NHMRC will award an equal number of leadership-level grants to women and men in its main Investigator program

Public and private companies
Germany has recently established a law to increase the number of women in leadership positions in public and private companies. Companies are required to set target figures for women in leadership. Noncompliance has serious consequences, with fines up to €10 million (A$15.4 million), 5 per cent of annual turnover or twice the amount of economic benefit gained for publicly traded companies.

Positively building the female STEM workforce

These examples of positive discrimination have and will continue to support women entering and remaining in STEM roles. However, beyond quotas, keeping women in STEM industries requires a commitment to supporting their development as leaders, promoting them and building inclusive organisations.

We imagine a future where the representation of women in STEM industries is the norm, special considerations become irrelevant and women are valued in all roles. From our experience working in STEM and with organisations in male-dominated industries, we have identified starting points for universities, industry and government.

Universities should introduce positive discrimination measures to encourage women to enter STEM degrees. These measures could include industry-sponsored degrees, mentorship, networking opportunities and leadership training for female students and staff.

Industry should introduce quotas for female representation across all levels of an organisation. Beyond recruitment targets, STEM organisations should be aware of cultural biases and counter negative gender stereotypes, provide mentorship and active support for career progression, and promote flexibility in the workplace.

Governments can uplift women in STEM by implementing quotas and holding organisations accountable through reporting, following the example of Germany.

Together we can build a supportive culture for women in STEM. Positive discrimination might be uncomfortable, but it is working. It is an important step towards meaningful progress for women entering, and remaining in, the STEM workforce.