By Emily Barrett, SciTech editor
March 8 was International Women’s Day (IWD) and the theme this year is ‘embrace equity’. But what does that mean for women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM)?
The organisers of IWD define equity as the acknowledgement that each person has different circumstances, and they should be allocated ‘the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome’.
We have all heard the various statistics about the proportion of women studying STEM subjects at university, but the reality is more complex than numbers can hope to convey. According to 2021/22 data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), female students make up the majority of those studying medicine and dentistry, but only represent 20 per cent of engineering and technology students.
It is clear that ‘women in STEM’ are not a homogenous group and may encounter different struggles depending on what they study. Furthermore, the representation of women at undergraduate level does not reflect the proportion of those who continue to STEM careers, and those who attain higher-level positions.
In light of this, what can universities do to represent the message of International Women’s Day this year? While the circumstances that influence students to choose STEM subjects are largely out of universities’ control, there are steps they can take to create a welcoming environment for women. For example, creating a sense of community for students: the University of Bristol has a Women in STEM and a Women in Engineering society which host regular events and provide women with a chance to meet others who share their experiences.
Peer mentoring also has a proven impact on the experiences of women in STEM. A study in Nature Communications found that female engineering students who were assigned a female peer mentor – as opposed to a male mentor and no mentor – showed improved ‘psychological experiences in engineering, aspirations to pursue postgraduate engineering degrees, and emotional well-being’.
University careers services have a role to play as well. Targeted careers workshops could tackle subjects such as interview confidence, unconscious bias and recognising gendered wording in job adverts. According to a 2011 study, gendered wording in job adverts ‘can maintain gender inequality in traditionally male-dominated occupations’. They found that when women read job adverts with more ‘stereotypically masculine’ wording, they found these jobs less appealing.
Another problem that plagues women in STEM is impostor syndrome – a feeling of self-doubt and perceived incompetence that persists in spite of somebody’s personal achievements. This affects people at all stages of their careers, and so promoting the work of inspiring women, as well as inviting them to talk about their experiences, could help undergraduates to realise that they are not alone in their feelings.
However, it is important to remember that the experiences of women in STEM are not all the same. Besides gender, there are many other aspects of somebody’s identity and their circumstances that can influence their experience of studying STEM at university. This is central to IWD’s theme of equity – that equality of outcome is achieved when everybody has access to the resources they need.
Featured image: Emily Barrett/Epigram