Being a woman in STEM myself, I have found it difficult to ignore the low female to male ratios and the experiences associated with them. Like everyone else, there are times when I have loved my course and other times when I have found it hard to cope with the workload. However, all this experience comes with the added pressure of being one of the few women on my course.
I interviewed other fellow women in STEM about their motivations for studying for their degree and their experience in terms of their gender. I gave them pseudonyms as they shared personal details from their school, uni, and placements. I have used their testimonies to paint a picture of being a woman in STEM, as well as discuss possible changes that can be made to improve the gender ratios.
What are women’s motivations to go into STEM degrees?
The women I interviewed generally expressed that they found Maths and Science subjects interesting at school. Lucy who studies Integrated Mechanical and Electrical Engineering was interested in Maths and Physics at A levels and chose engineering because it is something she thought she would be good at. Beth, who studies Design Engineering like me, also wanted to get into product design later, more specifically user-centred design because of her own experience of working with children with disabilities. She saw a big need for products designed with a user in mind.
What is known about the gender ratios in STEM subjects?
It is widely known that the female to male ratios are low, and different across STEM subjects. The girls who study engineering said they noticed the lack of women more than the others. Beth found herself counting the women in her lectures, and realised it was about 10%, which is optimistic compared to what she thought would be the national average of 7%, but it is still low. Lucy said that she expected the environment to be male-dominated. Emily who recently graduated with a BSc in Chemistry said that the ratio is not something she considered when she was applying.
What is it like being a woman in STEM?
Beth said she initially made the assumption that people might talk over her or not take her seriously because she is a woman, but she said she found this to not be the case. She has observed that some male groups are more cliquey or have inside jokes, but it always depends on who you hang out with and she picked her friends accordingly. She also noted that she has much less confidence than the men on the course, and she is self-conscious if she has to talk to a technician. Beth and the other interviewees agreed that they have all had the same opportunities and have received the same accountability and workload as everyone else on their course.
Lucy said that upon getting her placement in a Formula 1 company, she felt like she had Imposter Syndrome because everyone else was much more of a Formula 1 enthusiast than her. She ended up taking on more work than she could handle sometimes to prove that she deserved to be there, and she was reluctant to ask for help. She partially agreed with Beth, saying that she has never experienced anyone being rude to her because of her gender, but it is difficult to make friendships because most men have more in common with each other.
Emily said that in her chemistry degree, the gender difference was small (about 40/60) so she did not feel like a minority in her course. She felt like she received equal opportunities overall, but she had experiences of male students being more likely to help her in labs than they were other males. She also felt like she had to change her style from feminine to professional to be taken seriously.
These experiences are a part of the reality of being a woman in STEM, but they also exist in other courses. These experiences suggest that our generation has improved in terms of being respectful to one another regardless of gender and other distinctions. The truth is that in most uni STEM environments, women receive equal opportunities to succeed academically. It is just the culture that needs to improve to help women feel better and more included in the environment to maximise their performance.
How important is female representation?
Female representation refers to having women in all positions, from STEM students to lecturers and role models. Beth said that it is very “off-putting” to sometimes be the only female in the room. She said that if she does not know something she is scared people will think it is because she is a woman. I share this view with her; she feels like she represents all women in STEM because of the low number of women and the stereotypes. Lucy also had a similar view, she said she was qualified for her placement job, but she will always wonder if the fact that she was a woman made them look at her CV more closely.
The general conclusion from the interviews and my personal experience is that some women in STEM have an additional psychological burden. They feel like their skills and behaviour are always in the spotlight because they feel like the minority.
What can be done to encourage more women into STEM?
The interviewees had lots of different views on why fewer women chose STEM subjects than men. Emily said that the male majority prevents them from enjoying it once they are in it or achieving growth in that field. She also said that society pushes women to go for other subjects. Beth agreed that there is an assumption that a male-dominated environment can be toxic and I would like to add that there are many stereotypes of how women are treated in engineering from the old days.
Lucy said that STEM subjects, especially engineering, are not promoted enough. Other school subjects had fun labs and experiments, but she would have liked more fun, practical activities, like building drones and model aeroplanes at school. Beth also talked about the lack of technology and design resources at her school compared to the neighbouring all-boys school. She said that teenagers chose uni paths based on the resources they have available, so there is a big need to create activities that could spark interest.
In terms of what can be done to promote STEM subjects to women, all interviewees agreed that the solution is of a social nature. Both Beth and Lucy said that the shift starts with small kids and that parents should stop labelling toys and activities with a specific gender, like assuming that a boy will be more interested in fixing cars than a girl. Lastly, Emily said something which I am a big supporter of. She proposed to promote female communities for existing STEM women, so they have a group to get social and psychological support.
Regardless of the gender ratio, STEM degrees are incredibly valuable and rewarding. Throughout the four years of my degree, I have grown in academic and personal ways that I can not begin to describe. My engineering degree has taught me transferable skills of how to be practical, creative, adaptable and resilient in work and in life. So, even though the gender ratio is a challenge, the benefits of the degree will prepare you for the rest of your life, and definitely outweigh the challenges. I have also experienced how my university is actively trying to support existing and future women in STEM through all the support and opportunities it provides and I am incredibly grateful. So while I want students to be aware of the low gender ratio, in no way I believe it is a factor that should prevent them from choosing such rewarding subjects.