Universities urged to address STEM gender gap

Universities urged to address STEM gender gap

A gender gap in STEM exists, but policies to close it do not, says a new report has warned.

The recently published comprehensive international report, titled: 'the historical comparison of gender inequality in scientific careers across countries and disciplines’, describes an “indisputable under-representation of women in STEM”, which is a looming challenge for educators in both the K-12 and higher education sectors.

Associate Dean Academic in the Charles Sturt University Faculty of Science Associate Professor Cate Thomas says what the report didn’t outline is the ways to permanently alleviate this discrepancy.

Professor Thomas commented on the study ‘Historical comparison of gender inequality in scientific careers across countries and disciplines’ (July 2019), which examined over 1.5 million gender-identified authors whose publishing career ended between 1955 and 2010, covering 83 countries and 13 disciplines.

“I stress that no other report or plan has adequately outlined how to redress this imbalance,” Professor Thomas said.

She notes the report’s first sentence makes the claim  ‘ … there is extensive, yet fragmented, evidence of gender differences in academia suggesting that women are under-represented in most scientific disciplines, publish fewer articles throughout a career, and their work acquires fewer citations’.

“While I agree with the above statement, it’s important to ask: does the report go far enough to highlight the more systemic factors that impact on women in STEM, and in the broader higher education context?” Professor Thomas said.

“There may be reasons for this, like research and employment breaks to meet carer and family requirements, or a perpetuation of an industry culture that favours one gender above others.”

Professor Thomas said nurturing more junior female researchers and academics may be one way of ensuring a higher level of representation and output in research and academia, but urged greater discussion about the more structural issues that are having an impact.

“Are women still perceiving the glass ceiling and the negative self-belief of their own abilities to succeed? Are they moving to teaching or education-focussed positions in a realisation that career breaks are detrimental to their research or trajectory in academia?” she said.

Professor Thomas said that while there has been a policy shift in the attempt to redress these questions, policy needs to go further and consider that it is a necessity for the majority of women to take a career break for child-rearing and family care issues.

“This is a given. So why is it that academia and industry still hasn’t supported and enabled women to achieve in STEM fields? Why has the notion of relative achievement based on opportunity stalled?” Professor Thomas said.

“If there were adequate opportunities to demonstrate achievement based on opportunity to achieve – not on time served – then things may start to change.”