Where Are All the Women? Reaching out to Bring More Girls Into STEM

engineer_MTake a look at the image. What do you think the person is doing? Are they a designer, an inventor? Do you think they might be an engineer? I recently asked this last question to a group of year 6 students from a local primary school. Around 84 per cent of them gave responses indicating that yes, they thought this person was probably an engineer. In the same survey, some students were shown a similar image but the hairstyle of the person was changed to imply that they were female. That 84 per cent? It dropped to 44 per cent.

These differing perceptions, of engineering and the type of people who work in the field, have powerful implications for the composition of the workforce. Perhaps it is not surprising that women make up only 14 per cent of the engineering workforce in Australia, and that only 16 per cent of Australians with STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) qualifications are women. While this this lack of women in STEM is a problem in itself, it is also part of a bigger picture that governments and researchers across the world are turning their attention to. There is a concern that the number of students opting to pursue STEM education at higher levels will not be able to meet the demands of a world which is increasingly reliant on technology and scientific advancements, not only for a strong economy but in order to tackle problems such as climate change and global inequality. Consequently, there has been a lot of time, effort and money placed into developing outreach programs which aim to promote STEM to young students, with the hopes that these programs may spark an interest in the would-be scientists and engineers of tomorrow.

My thesis explores the questions of why students lose interest in STEM and how might we might best be able to combat this with outreach programs. These broad questions are underpinned by one that is more personal to me and my identity as a feminist: where are all the women?

The declining rate of participation in STEM has been the focus of many researchers before and, thankfully for me, there is a lot of information on the topic already. We know that students’ interest in science declines rapidly between the ages 10 – 14, at a time of transition from childhood to adolescence, and primary school to high school. This is a critical time where students start thinking about their future careers, and those who aspire to be a scientist during this time are 3.4 times more likely than their peers to attain a bachelor’s degree in the physical sciences or engineering. If a student doesn’t hold an interest in science during their early adolescence it’s unlikely they will develop a strong interest later. Thus, any interventions designed to boost participation rates in STEM need to target students during or before they reach this critical period, otherwise it may be too late. Despite the fact that girls perform similarly or outperform boys on many academic tests, they tend to have lower interest in STEM across the board and are less likely to continue with their STEM education past compulsory levels.

One focus of my research is finding out how students perceive scientists and engineers; what do these people look like, what do they do? When asked to draw a picture of a scientist, students will often produce an image of a balding male, wearing a lab coat and doing experiments with chemicals and microscopes (if you Google “scientist clip art”, you will see exactly what I mean). Features of this stereotypical brainy chemist appear in drawings from children as young as six, and their perceptions tend to become more stereotyped with age. When asked to draw an engineer, many students will draw a picture of a man fixing or building a car, suggesting that their mental image of an ‘engineer’ is in fact closer to the reality of a mechanic. Along with being ill-informed and often negative, these perceptions that students have of scientists and engineers are almost exclusively masculine. In an analysis of 4807 drawing of scientists created by primary school children, only 28 of them depicted a female scientist. All of these were drawn by girls; not one boy thought to draw a picture of a woman. Despite this specific study being conducted three decades ago, similar findings still arise in the literature today.

There is the sense that to be a scientist, or an engineer, or a mathematician or an astrophysicist, you have to be the sort of person that goes into that field. When you enter a career, whether it be STEM related or not, you take on a new identity that shapes not only how others see you, but also how your see yourself. To become a scientist is to take on an identity and assert your place in a culture that has a long and well entrenched history. This can be a daunting prospect for many women and female students, as (highlighted by stereotypes described above) many features of the scientist are incongruent with typically feminine qualities. But identities have many intersecting facets, with gender being only one. The stereotypical scientist is not only masculine, but he is also white, able-bodied, middle-aged and probably heterosexual as well. Indigenous people, people of colour, those from a low socio-economic background, LGBTIQA people, those with a disability and many other groups have been traditionally overlooked and under-represented in the STEM sphere. Belonging to any of these identities can make the scientific identity seem out of reach for ‘someone like me’.

STEM outreach programs, such as the globally popular RoboGals, can play a powerful role in fostering the aspirations of young would-be scientists. They offer students the opportunity to see STEM in a new light and to explore and test concepts that they might not be exposed to in a regular classroom setting. Importantly, they also introduce students to new mentors in the field. Often such programs are run by young men and women who don’t fit the stereotypical ‘scientist’ mould described above. These new mentors can work to challenge and change the understanding that students have of what it means to be a scientist. My research focuses on the programs run by Questacon, which employs a host of young, engaging mentors (many of them from the ANU). Alongside their science centre, Questacon runs programs both locally and interstate which introduce students to STEM concepts in short, hands-on workshops. For Questacon, STEM doesn’t simply mean a collection of four subject areas. STEM can also be seen a way of learning which focuses on developing skills in problem solving, communication, teamwork, and designing effective solutions to problems that take into account the context of the world around them. Questacon’s workshops are provided free-of-charge for any interested schools groups, and the touring programs visit regional areas where STEM experiences may otherwise be lacking. I have been given the opportunity to take a look at Questacon’s programs, to explore what works and what doesn’t, to hopefully contribute to an evidence base to support these programs. To date, this evidence base is lacking.

For each STEM outreach program that is analysed and published in a peer review journal, there are countless more that evade such scrutiny. In 2004, Susan Dyer and colleagues reviewed over 400 programs funded by the National Science Foundation and The American Association of University Women. These programs aimed to improve gender equity in STEM and covered initiatives such as robotics workshops, mentor programs and field trips to science centres. While each funded program was required to provide a report on their outcomes, data was often missing, and when it came to evaluating the effectiveness of the programs most provided simple testimonials from participants to indicate that they were a success. While this information is useful – and we cannot expect small community projects to adhere to the stringent quality we expect of scientifically published research – it is clear that there is a need for more empirically grounded evaluation of such projects.

Without a strong evidence base to underpin the development of outreach programs, we run the risk of promoting programs that at best, have no impact, and at worst, serve to perpetuate the unhelpful stereotypes that discourage women from entering STEM. In 2008, Silver and Rushton evaluated a robotics program that aimed to get young children to think positively about science, engineering and technology (SET). The program was quite simple; over the course of a few weeks primary aged students build a robotic car which was capable of carrying an adult human passenger. Perhaps not surprisingly, surveys conducted before and after the program revealed that this program did little to change students’ views about SET, and instead reinforced the stereotype that engineers are just people who work on cars. Considering that robotics programs are one of the most popular types of STEM outreach activities available to students, these kinds of findings are not encouraging.

As I approach the one-year anniversary of starting my PhD, I’ve been trying to tease out what makes a good STEM outreach program. It has to be fun enough to keep students engaged, but not so fantastic that students start to distinguish their experience as separate to ‘real’ science (which is boring, difficult and not relevant outside of school). It needs to work on promoting the image of a scientist as ‘someone like me’ and reject the notion that STEM is only for the brainy, ambitious few. It also has to be mindful of the methods it uses to engage students and avoid relying on the typically masculine interests of robotic cars and chemical experiments, which may not appeal to the interests of young girls. Of course, for every girl who would love nothing more than to build a killer robot, there is a boy who could think of nothing less appealing. But the research does show that girls (and women) tend to express an interest in pursuing careers that afford them the opportunity to help other people, an opportunity that isn’t often emphasised in STEM outreach programs. This interest in prosocial behaviour helps to explain why there is often no gender gap in the composition of students pursuing study in medicine and biology, where the ability to help others is much clearer than in fields such as mathematics, engineering and computer science. Often, these fields are taught in an abstract way that focuses on learning skills but not the applications, leaving students wondering how all this knowledge will ever be relevant to their lives. Educators in all spheres of teaching would do well to highlight how STEM can enhance and improve the lives of us all – from engineering cost effective ways to deliver vaccines, to coding apps which connect people to aid during natural disasters. Perhaps I would not have ended up in psychology if I knew that there were many other fields where I could make a positive change in the world.

chemist_F_v2Identities are complex and each person brings with them their own histories and privilege (or lack thereof). If there exists a lack of role models for young women in STEM, there are even less who serve to give a voice to Indigenous students and women of colour. Interestingly, however, when I showed the year 6 students a group of 24 images and asked them to rate how likely each was to be a scientist, the white woman was rated the highest. And the black pharmacist, when presented as both male and female, trumped the white doctor. This is a small but promising space in my research where diversity comes out on top – perhaps our perceptions are beginning to change.


Despite this small win, however, much of the research I read is still immersed in a gender binary that fails to acknowledge, let alone evaluate, the experiences of those whose gender fall outside this binary and their STEM aspirations. Although I still have much to learn, I do not want to produce another body of work that further perpetuates this binary. I’ve said that the underlying theme of my thesis is about getting more women into STEM, but really it’s about working towards a climate where STEM is inclusive for all, including those who have felt shut out by its white, masculine history.