Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

From 'Boosting' and 'Inspiring' Girls to Effecting Real Social Change in the STEM Workplace Through Education

by Kirsten Sadler — March 13, 2017

This commentary is a response to the renewed focus of funding and interest in gender equality in STEM in Australia. The author argues for new approaches and strategies, dialogic and inclusive of all diversities, toward creating a more inclusive STEM workplace into the future.

In Australia, the release of the National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA) in September 2015 has unleashed a flurry of funding, initiatives, and reports on gender equality and women’s participation in STEM. With $13 million to be invested by the Australian government over 5 years for gender equity initiatives alone, the past year has seen the establishment of, and support for: the Women in STEM And Entrepreneurship (WISE) grant program; the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) pilot of Athena SWAN program; and the Male Champions of Change for STEM project (Australian Government, 2016). Together, these initiatives have been funded to address the need for "a concerted, national effort to overcome the cultural, institutional and organisational factors that discourage girls and women from studying STEM, and that limit their opportunities to pursue careers in STEM and entrepreneurship" (Australian Government, 2016). What is little acknowledged in the public eye, however, is a sense of history. The seemingly endless cycles of calls for ‘more girls and women’ in STEM have been resident for decades. And despite decades of efforts that include research, policy recommendations, and initiatives, researchers and policy makers have acknowledged that negligible change has occurred in growing women’s workplace participation rates (Beddoes, 2011).

The statistics of women’s participation over the last 20 years paint a picture of a deeply entrenched gender divide in Western countries that has so far resisted change, particularly in the T and E of STEM. For example, there has been a steady decline in women’s attainment of computer-science related undergraduate degrees in the U.S., decreasing from a peak of 37% in the mid-1980s to 18% in 2011 (National Centre for Education Statistics, 2012). Engineering workforce participation for women is now hovering unchanged in the U.S., Australia, and Europe at around 10-14% (Casey, 2012; Kaspura, 2013; Marinelli & Lord, 2014). More disturbing, Glass, Sassler, Levitte, and Michelmore (2013) reveal alarming departure rates for U.S. women in STEM occupations when compared to women in other professional occupations. Their results show that despite few differences in job characteristics or family factors, after about 12 years, 50% of women who have worked in STEM have exited compared to only 20% of women in other professional occupations. While there is evidence that women who start STEM degrees are likely to finish them, the retention of women in the workplace is a particular challenge.

Twenty years ago, the philosophy underpinning STEM equity efforts was that if more girls were encouraged into university courses, then eventually a tipping point would be reached in which being female and being an engineer or a computer scientist or a physicist, etc., would become a norm. In other words, by pouring in more girls, the numbers of females would, over time, grow to be representative of the general population. Efforts by educators, mostly championed by one or a small few women in male-dominated STEM faculties, focused on ways to attract and support females through initiatives such as Women in Engineering programs, mentoring, and outreach to female school students (see Tsui, 2007 for a review of common initiatives). All valuable approaches, these efforts have tended to focus on boosting and inspiring females. Unfortunately, despite these efforts, limited industry support exists and girls have continued to pour out from the workplace as demonstrated by Glass et al.’s (2013) statistics.

Fast forward 20 years and discourses around why more women are needed have shifted, from one that espoused the team benefits of diversity to one that now casts girls and women’s STEM participation in economic terms; as untapped talent or as untapped productivity potential (Poynton & Rolland, 2013), vital for ensuring our global economic competitiveness through STEM innovation and entrepreneurship into the future. With economic imperatives at play, organisations have started paying attention. Gone are the days in which posters of naked women on engineering construction site walls were de rigueur. Unconscious bias has now been acknowledged as a key factor in the exclusion of women from career advancement opportunities, while some organisations are slowly beginning to develop specific industry initiatives to retain female employees (see for example WIE, 2014, 2015).

Over this twenty-year period, however, the efforts of tertiary educators appear to have remained relatively unchanged. Many faculties still have not introduced formal structures to support underrepresented minorities (Bayer Foundation, 2012). While an individual university or a few female staff continue to champion female student participation and retention, the issue of gender equity does not appear to have been actively taken up by the dominant male culture in tertiary STEM faculties. This includes pedagogically. In IT, Lewis, Lang & McKay (2007) suggest that this may be due to a lack of staff with specialist expertise in gender theory or education within technical male-dominated STEM faculties. In engineering, Beddoes (2011) attributes this more broadly to limited recognition of, or interest in, underrepresentation. It appears instead that gender equity has historically and effectively been marginalised to women talking to women about women, and women supporting women. This raises a second challenge, in addition to workplace retention, of how to engage and inspire tertiary male educators to take action. It also reveals a need to consider ways to extend the dialogue to deliberately include, rather than unintentionally exclude, men and male students.

Part of my argument in this article is that it is time for new steps, different initiatives and alternative perspectives if we want to move toward change. This requires reflection by educators about what they are currently doing and what they can try that is different. By considering the twin challenges of workforce retention and a broader dialogue, potential directions for gender aware STEM educators shift from pouring in and boosting girls toward the building of critical skills for the whole student cohort. Options fall out of this view for educators that allow explicit consideration of ways to activate both male and female students to be aware of, and take action on, gender equity now and in the future workplace. This could be supported through the incorporation of additional dimensions of critical skills development for female students in WISE programs to survive the future workplace. It could also be supported through the incorporation of diversity awareness content into the curriculum, such as the University of Wollongong’s diversity lecture for all students (Schafer, 2006). Further efforts to raise male academic staff awareness could be made through internal faculty lecture series and specifically designed staff professional development opportunities. The co-design of content for these would need to involve both men and women, and be based on shared perspectives, for positive receptivity. As Cornwall & Rivas (2015) point out, efforts that seek to convert people through gender training or analysis are unlikely to lead to transformative action.

As a female ex-engineer who departed the E domain in 2004, it was quite a shock to discover, once out in industry as a newly minted engineer, that I had chosen a career that was likely to be untenable. The juxtaposition of the support I received to pursue STEM education against the lack of support out in industry was sharp and harsh. I felt let down by the education system for its positive portrayal of the engineering field to inspire females into the career, against its failure to paint a correspondingly realistic picture of the real world challenges that women face in the STEM workplace. Although well-meaning, the ethics of equity efforts that boost and inspire remain questionable if they do not also provide students with critical insights and skills that enable them to survive and act upon the work world beyond the classroom.

In 2012, when I departed STEM entirely for the Education discipline, the relief of leaving behind the rarefied environment in which being female was the distinguishing characteristic of my work identity was tangible and unexpected. While spotlighting has been called into question in relation to the design of support programs (Powell, Dainty & Bagihole, 2011), this spotlight extends beyond programs to shape all actions taken to-date toward diversity in STEM; the policy, research and recommendations. New calls and initiatives continue to cast women and girls’ participation as the perpetual problem or the tantalising other that once resolved will fix all. This leads to the second part of my argument in this article; while the discourses continue to centre on and reinforce the division between men and women, or boys and girls, could this framing be part of the barrier to change?

Moving beyond the dichotomy creates spaces for inclusive conversations about diversity that are broader than gender alone. The existing male-female emphasis also makes invisible the disadvantages that, in parallel, can occur in the STEM workplace. Anecdotally, this can include staff from different cultural backgrounds being excluded from career progression opportunities by senior male staff from white Anglo-Saxon backgrounds, or part-time workers being excluded from significant work by being viewed as too unreliable for critical project paths. A small yet emerging thread within the STEM education scholarship reveal experiences of marginalisation, that are both similar yet different to those of girls, for a range of students from diverse backgrounds, including indigenous, Asian, and LGBTQI among others (see for example Cech & Waidzuna, 2011). While girls retain the gaze of all, opportunities may be missed to generate, as Cornwall & Rivas (2015) suggest, genuine inclusiveness in which all people are not only given chances to have a say but also chances to be heard. A gaze on inclusion rather than gender can invite new, hard and other questions that have yet to be asked (Cornwall & Rivas, 2015).

For cultural transformation to truly occur, instead of lip service to the need for more women in STEM, one catalyst that can invite innovation is the crossing of traditional boundaries: organisational, knowledge, and social. In 2017, it is exciting to see new Australian government funded initiatives that actively seek to build institutional capacity to effect cultural change in the STEM workplace (e.g. the Male Champions of Change for STEM project) by involving senior male men. This type of action from the top down is integral in achieving cultural change and is novel in STEM for its engagement of men in gender equality efforts. Further traditional boundaries abound within the STEM education scholarship and remain as opportunities to be breached for new insights. Much could be learned by drawing established understandings from non-STEM disciplines (global development, masculinity studies and men’s engagement, political science, business) in which alternative perspectives, steps and progress have been made toward gender equality. This could extend existing evidence in STEM education, with its current overreliance on post-positivist and feminist thought (Beddoes & Borrego, 2012). At a time when change has been long overdue, when collective recognition of the need for diversity is well established yet real change is elusive, I argue it is time for the new for STEM policy makers, educators and researchers. New frames for action based on dialogue and inclusion, new perspectives that cross-traditional boundaries, and consideration by educators of new ways to inspire whole-of-student-cohort collective action.


Australian Government. (2016). Opportunities for women in science, technology, engineering and maths. Retrieved from http://innovation.gov.au/page/opportunities-women-stem

Bayer Corporation. (2012). Bayer Facts of Science Education XV: A View from the Gatekeepers - STEM Department Chairs at America's Top 200 Research Universities on Female and Underrepresented Minority Undergraduate STEM Students. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 21(3), 317–324.

Beddoes, K. (2011). Engineering Education Discourses on Underrepresentation: Why Problematization Mattters. International Journal of Engineering Education, 27(5), 1117–1129.

Beddoes, K., & Borrego, M. (2011). Feminist Theory in Three Engineering Education Journals: 1995-2008. Journal of Engineering Education, 100(2), 281–303.


Casey, B. (2012). STEM Education: Preparing for the Jobs of the Future. Retrieved from http://www.jec.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/democrats/2012/4/stem-education-preparing-jobs-of-the-future

Cech, E. A., & Waidzuna, T. J. (2011). Navigating the heteronormativity of engineering: The experience of lesbian, gay, and bisexual students. Engineering Studies, 3(1), 1–24.

Cornwall, A., & Rivas, A. M. (2015). From 'gender equality' and 'women's empowerment' to global justice: reclaiming a transformative agenda for gender and development. Third World Quarterly, 36(2), 396–415.

Glass, J. L., Sassler, S., Levitte, Y., & Michelmore, K. M. (2013). What's So Special about STEM? A comparison of women's retention in STEM and professional occupations. Social Forces, 92(2).

Kaspura, A. (2013). The Engineers Australia Survey of Working Environment and Engineering Careers, 2012. Retrieved from https://www.engineersaustralia.org

Lewis, S., Lang, C., & McKay, J. (2007). An Inconvenient Truth: The Invisibility of Women in ICT. Australasian Journal of Information Systems, 15(1), 59–76.

Marinelli, M., & Lord, L. (2014). Onwards and upwards: Insights from women managers and leaders in engineering. In D. Billimoria & L. Lord (Eds.), Women in STEM Careers: International Perspectives on Increasing Workforce Participation, Advancement and Leadership. Edward Elgar Publishing.

National Centre for Education Statistics (2012) Table 349. Degrees in computer and information sciences conferred by degree-granting institutions, by level of degree and sex of student: 1980-71 through 2010-11, December 2016, Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d12/tables/dt12_349.asp

Powell, A., Dainty, A., & Bagihole, B. (2011). A poisoned chalice? Why UK women engineering and technology students may receive more 'help' than their male peers. Gender and Education, 23(5), 585–599.

Poynton, A. & Rolland, L. (2013). Untapped opportunity: The role of women in unlocking Australia’s productivity potential. Ernst & Young, Australia.

Schafer, A. I. (2006). A new approach to increasing diversity in engineering at the example of women in engineering. European Journal of Engineering Education, 31(6), 661–671.

Tsui, L. (2007). Effective Stategies to Increase Diversity in STEM Fields: A Review of the Research Literature. The Journal of Negro Education, 76(4), 555–581.

WIE (2014). Women in Engineering: Industry Blueprint of Successful in-house Professional Women's Programs. Engineers Australia. Retrieved from https://www.engineersaustralia.org.au/sites/default/files/wie_industry_blueprint_print_a5_sml_-_final.pdf

WIE (2015). Women in Engineering: Action Plan for Mitigating Gender Bias. Engineers Australia. Retrieved from https://www.engineersaustralia.org.au/sites/default/files/wie_industryblueprint_p3_digital.pdf

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 13, 2017
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21867, Date Accessed: 3/23/2017 4:14:26 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue