It's hard to get women into the STEM and IT professions. And that's because their numbers are falling off in the educational end. Over the last decade, there's been a 65 percent decline in the number of women who enrolled in ICT undergraduate courses across Australia. In 2019, only 19 percent of students who enrolled in IT courses were women; only 18 percent of those who enrolled in engineering and related technologies were women.
And it's a vicious cycle, according to new research by the University of Monash. Women who take up undergraduate STEM and IT courses have increasingly become an underrepresented minority, meaning that they have less peer support, are less likely to have their voices and needs taken into consideration, and are increasingly viewed as 'outsiders' and labelled with stereotypes simply because they number so few.
That in turn creates negative educational experiences: a campus that doesn't welcome women, sexist teachers and students, a sense that they are being pushed out, unequal treatment, and difficulty getting help when they need it. And so the chance that they will discontinue their degree increases, and the end result is even fewer women in the profession.
On educational institutions' end, be more inclusive
The researchers believe it's critical to re-normalise having women in STEM and IT courses, both to the men around them and to the women themselves. This means, at the most fundamental level, making it everyday and even expected for women and girls to be interested in science and technology and to participate in learning about it - starting from childhood, working up through their teens, and into tertiary education.
The criteria for admission to courses needs to be broadened as well, to look at not just specialised knowledge or prior experience but also wider aptitudes - something which has already been happening in the working world as recruiters respond to tech skill shortages by looking for soft skills such as leadership and learning ability. After all, a shortage of skilled women is essentially the same thing as a shortage of skills full stop, and ought to be addressed the same way.
Also, it's not enough to just have their presence in the course accepted. The report found that women tend to be more interested in broader applications of a given discipline, but STEM and IT courses may have extremely specialised or focused requirements, and women are more likely to feel that this specialisation clashes with their broader educational and career goals. So tertiary courses need to be taught differently: made accessible to a wider audience than just those who want to specialise, focusing not just on the technical aspect but also on wide-ranging real-world applications, introducing more classroom collaboration where students work with diverse teams just as they would in the workplace.
On employers' end, be proactive in offering women opportunities
There is a strong link between career path knowledge and persistence in STEM study, meaning that retaining people in their educational path - and thereby moving them on into the profession - involves equipping students with job market skills and giving them opportunities to explore local companies. Industry-based internships, for example, drive up the likelihood that students will finish their degree and move on into the industry. This is where companies can play a huge role in ensuring that female students get these opportunities in an equitable and inclusive manner - which will, of course, also strengthen the companies' own talent pipeline.
The research also underscores the importance of mentoring, specifically by more senior women in industry, to prepare undergraduates and recent graduates for the working world.
Monash U's Faculty of IT Interim Dean Professor Ann Nicholson said that getting women into STEM and IT has to be an effort across the board. “We cannot look at this unilaterally as being a women’s issue that needs to be worked on only by women," she said. "We need to adopt a holistic approach in creating inclusive mindsets, interactions and institutions that move towards a more balanced future.”