The fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) have always been male dominated. For women hoping to enter STEM fields, the challenges of fitting into a ‘boys club’ can be discouraging.
A lot has changed for women in STEM over the years. In 1970, less than 1 per cent of engineering majors were women. In 2021, that number has risen to 21 per cent. This progress could be encouraging but women in the field say there is still far to go.
Historians Laura Ettinger, Nicole Conroy and William Barr surveyed 251 female engineers who graduated from college in the 1970’s to learn how things had changed over time.
“We are ‘women engineers.’ People don’t refer to a man as a ‘man engineer’ – he’s an engineer. We are constantly reminded that we never truly belong,” said one civil engineering respondent.
“Bias can be quite subtle, which really hurts young women, because it can take them years to recognise it, by which time they may have lost a lot of ground,” An engineer in the auto industry explained.
Research suggests that children are affected by gender stereotypes from a young age. According to a study conducted by Laura Scholes and Sarah McDonald, Australian children in year 3 have often already internalised gendered biases about ‘girl jobs’ and ‘boy jobs.’ Scholes and McDonald suggest this could discourage young girls from taking an interest in STEM topics.
Some women report feeling pressure to choose between an academic career and having a family. A study from 2019 found that 43 per cent of women in STEM leave the workforce following the birth of their first child compared to 23 per cent of fathers.
However, all hope is not lost. Today’s women in STEM may have a better chance at acceptance and success in their chosen fields.
“Today, young women engineers are more accepted mostly because there are just more of them. It’s easier to get their foot in the door. Younger male engineers are also used to working with women because they went to school with them,” said a project engineer in Ettinger, Conroy and Barr’s study.
It is probable women in STEM may continue to face the challenges of gender biases in otherwise male dominated industries. Still, things are looking up and further progress may still be yet to unfold.