Let's Talk About Women in STEM
Words by Samantha Allemann
Illustration by Ben Hammond
This piece is brought to you by Monash University's department of materials, science and engineering
When Mattel launched its first robotics engineer Barbie in 2018, the company said it wanted to shine a light on this underrepresented career and field for women. Samantha Allemann caught up with a group of women from Monash University to cut through the assumptions and discuss the realities of being a woman in STEM.
Glance into a university classroom (try not to be creepy about it) and take note of the students studying science, technology, engineering or maths. You probably won’t notice anything out of the ordinary – that is, the room is likely to be filled with both female and male students.
Yet according to the Women in STEMM (the extra M stands for ‘medicine’) Australia website, while over half of all Bachelor of Science and PhD graduates are women, senior roles in these fields are predominantly filled by men.
The Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) project hopes to fix this. Launched in Australia three years ago, SAGE aims to break down “the many barriers to full and equal participation of women and minority groups”. SAGE has 45 members across Australia driving this change. They represent medical research institutes, publicly funded research organisations and universities – Monash University is one of them.
At Monash’s Clayton campus, engineering still tends to have a higher male to female ratio. Figures show that of 2018’s returning students, only 13 percent of mining engineering is female and it’s slightly less for aerospace engineering. In chemical engineering, 39 percent of the class is female with civil engineering being slightly over 23 percent. The only exception is in environmental engineering, which has slightly more women than men (at just over 53 percent).
Marielle Salom, a third year Bachelor of Civil Engineering and Commerce student, says that she has a larger number of female classmates than people expect. “The problem is it decreases as you progress through university. This is reflected in the workforce, where there’s a minority of women, particularly in my field of construction engineering. There are even less in senior leadership roles.”
She’s not dissuaded by the figures, but thinks more could be done to support girls to choose engineering in the first place. Salom credits her high school maths teacher for encouraging her love of problem-solving, leading her to engineering. “I’ve always been fascinated with how things worked and engineering seemed exciting,” she says.
Sophie Antcliff, in her third year of the Bachelor of Engineering, has a similar story. “From a young age I loved learning about how things worked, and I enjoyed science and maths in high school,” she says. “In Year 12, I had a brilliant physics teacher who made the subject really interesting and had previously worked at an engineering company. He told me about a ‘Women in STEMM’ event that I attended, which really cemented my decision to apply for engineering at university.”
At her high school, Antcliff was one of six girls out of 50 kids who studied advanced maths, and just one of three girls in physics. “So coming to study engineering at university was actually an improvement in terms of gender ratio,” she says.
“Sometimes you encounter people who assume your success is purely based on gender rather than actual merit.”
Engineering wasn’t what Simone Pianko initially had in mind when she picked her uni preferences. “I wanted to do medicine but I didn't get in,” she says. “I wasn’t sure what to do. I didn’t think engineering would be for me but I gave it a shot.” Now in her third year of Environmental Engineering and Commerce, Pianko had to be convinced that she’d made the right choice. “When I started I did the core engineering subjects as well as the environmental engineering subjects. It was the environmental engineering subjects that really sold it to me – that what I was learning was going to help me shape the world in the way I want it to be.”
Pianko says that her parents’ friends (“people of that age group”) have been surprised when she has mentioned she’s studying engineering. “It’s definitely not their expectation,” she says. “But their response is not a negative one.”
Second year student Renee Meaney is also studying Engineering and Commerce. She’s only recently figured out what type of engineering she wants to specialise in. “I really like that Monash has a common first year in engineering, as I knew I wanted to do either chemical engineering or materials engineering but wasn’t quite sure,” she says. “After my first year, it confirmed that materials engineering was what I wanted to do.”
Encouraged to do engineering-based extra-curricular activities by her high school teachers, Meaney’s participation in the National Youth Science Forum also helped her decide to pursue a career in STEM. Ice-cream kind of helped too. “We had fun in the labs with activities like making our own ice-cream using liquid nitrogen,” she recalls. “And we could talk to people in the industry about different university’s reputations and courses.”
This led her to Monash University, which is ranked in the top one percent of world universities. However, an area the university is working to improve on is its gender balance within STEM. Monash is part of SAGE’s pilot accreditation program, which is known as Athena SWAN (the acronym stands for Scientific Women’s Academic Network). Initiatives such as Athena SWAN are helping to encourage women to study and work in science, technology, engineering and maths. While much needed, they can be a double-edged sword as well.
“Sometimes you encounter people who assume your success is purely based on gender rather than actual merit,” says Meaney. “Often once you challenge people’s statements or explain the facts, they realise their biases are engrained in society. Recently, I was interviewing people for an engineering role – three females applied, so I chose two of them and someone said I only chose them because they were girls. They didn't know that no males applied.”
She goes on to say that increased diversity in STEM would allow for “equal opportunities for promotion and no comments about people achieving or doing things just because of their gender. In terms of work/life balance, I’d like to see men being able and encouraged to take time off to spend looking after their kids, and women being encouraged to be in the workforce when they have kids too.”
The Women in STEMM Australia website notes that in this country, the STEM fields have the highest attrition rates between the ages of 35 – 45 years, and most of those who are leaving are women.
“It’s important for women to be known as successful employees, rather than successful female employees.”
Meaney acknowledges that changes are already underway when it comes to supporting families. “It’s great to see employers supporting women in making it easier to come back [after having children], with flexible working hours and part-time work,” she says. “However, it’s concerning that this is considered groundbreaking and rare in STEM, but totally normal in more female dominated fields such as nursing and teaching.”
In the 2018 budget, the Australian Government announced a $4.5 million package devoted to encouraging females to study and undertake careers in STEM. This money will go towards various initiatives and strategies, including the Government’s Women in STEM and Entrepreneurship (WISE) grant program.
Pianko says these days there are huge opportunities for female engineers. “But you can feel like you’re at a disadvantage too; it just depends on the way you look at it,” she says pragmatically.
Salom says she feels proud to be a female in engineering, although she’s occasionally felt intimidated, such as being only one of a few women in work situations. Having worked on the Level Crossing and West Gate Tunnel projects, she says she dealt with her feelings of being overwhelmed by asking a lot of questions and relying on her team for support.
None of the four engineering students mentioned having any barriers to their career goals. Meaney is aiming to go into consulting or project managing in engineering after graduating, while Pianko is thinking about her career plan more in terms of a life plan. “My life plan is to bring all my interests together – in sustainability, technology, building resilient communities and a society where there are opportunities for everyone – to create meaningful impact in the world,” she says.
Antcliff isn’t too sure what she wants to do. “There are still two years left in my degree, so I haven’t thought too much about post-university plans,” she says. “I’d like to think that I would not be put off applying for jobs working in very male dominated areas.”
Salom wants to continue working in construction engineering – “probably in engineering design coordination” – but she says this could change. What’s unwavering is her goal to be a leader in STEM, and for her success to not be aligned with her gender. “It’s important for women to be known as successful employees, rather than successful female employees,” she says.
Maybe one day soon, women like Salom will lead a diverse industry where gender is no longer a talking point – and success is celebrated unequivocally.