More women studying STEM: it’s not as good as it looks

The number of women enrolled in STEM undergraduate courses increased annually 2015-19 but only at much the same rate as men (And that’s the good news)

The Commonwealth’s new STEM equity monitor (that’s a report, not a person) finds that while there were 11 000 more women enrolled in undergraduate STEM in 2019 over 2015 they accounted for 34 per cent of enrolments in 2015 and 36 per cent in ’19.

The gender divide: Women dominate HE agriculture-environment and natural-physical sciences enrolment numbers but while they are up a bit in engineering and IT they made up just 18 per cent and 19 per cent respectively in 2019.

But this is all better than VET – women accounted for 15 per cent of overall enrolments in 2015 and 15 per cent in 2019.

The pattern of VET enrolments is not the same as HE – while women make up less than 10 per cent of enrolments in engineering they were a third of IT enrolments in 2019.

How come?: There’s data in the study that suggests how all of this happens. When kids are aged 12-13, four times as many boys (55 per cent) think they aren’t smart enough for STEM than girls (22 per cent). By the time they are 18-21, 29 per cent of males say they aren’t bright enough, compared to 41 per cent of girls.

Where they get that idea is complicated: A clear majority of parents think it is easier to engage boys in STEM subjects at school than girls. But 61 per cent of them don’t think boys are better suited to STEM-based careers than girls.

As to teachers, 60 per cent think boys are more confident than girls in engineering, there are large, albeit smaller majorities favouring boys in technology, maths and science.

But the end result is pretty clear: Many, many women who graduate in STEM don’t work in it. In 2016, just 10 per cent of women with a STEM qualification were employed in “a STEM qualified industry,” compared to 21 per cent of men.