Women who graduate with a degree in science, engineering or information technology are highly likely to wind up working in sales.
It’s a grim statement made in new research published in the Journal of Further and Higher Education.
An Australian study of graduate outcomes for disadvantaged students, written by Tim Pitman, Lynne Roberts, Dawn Bennett and Sarah Richardson, reported that women graduating from science, engineering and information technology courses were ranked last amongst other disadvantaged student groups.
The report investigated full-time work outcomes for graduates from several disadvantaged groups: Indigenous graduates, graduates with a disability, regional or remote students, graduates with non-English speaking backgrounds, low socio-economic status graduates, and women in non-traditional study areas such as science and engineering.
Women reported some of the worst results: they could expect below average full time and part time salaries, were ranked last in tenure security: only one in eight female graduates surveyed found employment in specialised engineering or IT fields.
Statistics from peak body Engineering Australia report just 6.5 per cent of young women are studying Year 12 physics and advanced maths – a percentage EA describes as a result of “unfortunate and unacceptable attitudinal legacies”.
In Tasmania— and across Australia – there’s a significant push to improve those statistics, with schools, colleges and independent organisations working to encourage a better awareness of science careers, and to provide a wider understanding of what it means to work in STEM fields.
At Red Brick Road Ciderhouse in Launceston on a Saturday afternoon, a group of women – who call themselves the Launceston STEMinists – met for a casual catch-up.
The group began in March this year, contributing to science events such as March for Science Launceston and Science Week.
Geologists, viticulturists, optometrists, natural science experts talked with physicists and technologists, science educators, and PhD students.
The topics on the agenda ranged from implementing science education in schools, to sharing news about upcoming Tasmanian science events and personal successes.
“It’s not family oriented”
When asked what pushes women out of science and engineering fields, the consensus was clear.
After years of study, and developing a viable career in their chosen fields, women who choose to have children are all but forced out by the necessity of maternity leave, and can come back to very different careers.
Karina Dambergs, owner of Red Brick Road Cider, said she worked at a cheese laboratory doing analytical chemistry, before she had a baby and had to find an alternative job.
“It’s just not very family oriented, so I had to change … now I work in management, because STEM prepares you for project management,” she said.
“I had to look for a job in that sphere that was flexible and family-friendly.”
Creating a competitive scientific career that can survive a maternity leave break of a year or longer is particularly challenging, and not helped by outdated academic industry rules and attitudes on paid parental leave that skew away from affording men the same amount of leave as women.
Dismissive attitudes from male academic supervisors that “women just finish their PhDs and go and have babies” mean women face a harder battle to secure funding – and keep that funding over maternity leave breaks.
Several women said taking a break from their career to have children meant they then transitioned into management or administration after acquiring “soft skills” over their time off work.
Angela Hansen, a Canadian PhD student researching plastics in Tasmanian wetlands, moved to Australia specifically so her PhD would be three years instead of five, giving her better opportunity to have children while still pursuing her career.
“If you’re putting off kids, it can mean you’re a lot older before you feel ready to have kids,” she said.
“So I’m on the verge now of deciding whether or not to have a child while I’m a PhD student, which is a terrifying prospect.”
Other strategies to combat the high risks of losing a much-cherished dream of a career in STEM included deliberately seeking out scientific careers or academic organisations that are already closer to gender parity, increasing chances of publication, recognition and a solid work history.
Expanding STEM to include medical sciences and health (STEMM), the number of women who remain in scientific academia through to PhD level steadily decreases, to the point that only 20.6 per cent of senior STEMM professors in Australia are women.
UTAS research fellow Dr Fiona Kerslake said change needed to be approached from both angles – creating more opportunity for women to work, and more for men to step away from work.
“It’s as much about releasing men from the concept that they have to work full time … that also needs to flip,” she said.
“That’s a really important thing.”
The need for diversity forums and drives to be targeted more towards men and typically male-dominated career fields and companies is something all the women agreed was key, along with the support of male mentors in the scientific fields.
Geologist Claire Mawdesley said in the mining industry she had seen efforts led by men to introduce women to a more active role, and to increase their visibility to other men in the industry, from an apprentice level to management.
“It’s not women who need to go to diversity lunches,” she said.
“We can stand up for ourselves so much of the time … a person might have taken two years off but in that time they might’ve learnt quite a few management skills because they’ve just had twins.”