The gender gap in STEM
By Dr Shawn Tan September 9, 2014
- There may not be a gender imbalance at school, but there is in industry
- The numbers are alarming, reflective of larger problem in STEM industries
A QUESTION has always vexed me – where are all the women?
If you drop by any college, you will find a healthy number of women studying STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) courses. The numbers may vary from school to school and programme to programme, but taken as a whole, the numbers are fairly healthy.
Anecdotally, about half my classmates were women when I was a student, and just under half my students were women where I previously taught engineering.
However, step into industry and you will find that the numbers drop dramatically. STEM jobs seem to be heavily male-dominated everywhere you look.
This trend has always puzzled me because the numbers don't seem to make sense.
If we look at the Kajian Pengesahan Graduan KPT study conducted by the Ministry of Higher Education of Malaysia in 2010, the overall ratio of female to male graduates for various Information & Communications Technology (ICT) fields at various public and private institutions of higher learning was 1.04:1.
This means that there is nearly a 1-to-1 ratio in schools and in fact, the number of female ICT graduates is marginally more than that of male ICT graduates.
Logically speaking, the number of women and men in the industry should be similar. However, that's not the case.
According to a World Bank report in 2002, only about 30% of the ICT professionals in the Malaysian software industry are women. Although there is an imbalance, this doesn't seem too bad, yet.
If we look at the numbers for engineering instead, the overall ratio of female to male graduates for the various fields of engineering is 0.47:1, which ranges from 0.2:1 for Mechanical Engineering through to 0.99:1 for Chemical Engineering.
While the gender imbalance for engineering is worse than that for ICT, overall, it still does not correlate with the situation in industry.
According to a research report citing numbers from the BEM (Board of Engineers, Malaysia) in 2005, only 12.8% of registered graduate engineers were women, while a mere 2.7% of registered professional engineers were women.
So, from an overall ratio of 0.47:1 at the point of graduation, the ratio decreases to 0.15:1 at the graduate engineer level – that is, those who end up working as engineers – and finally drops to 0.03:1 at the professional level (that is, those who end up using the title Ingenieur or Ir.).
To put this into perspective, for each woman that you find studying and working in engineering, you will find two other male classmates, seven other male engineering colleagues and 36 fellow male professional engineers at the end. A female professional engineer is a rare find.
These numbers are alarming and are reflective of a larger problem in STEM industries. While there may or may not be a gender imbalance at school, it worsens significantly in industry.
Unfortunately, this is not merely a Malaysian problem. The situation is similar in other parts of the world.
According to Forbes, women hold only 27% of all computer science jobs and make up only 20% of the computer science graduates in the United States. According to QS (which ranks universities worldwide), women make up 12% of engineering students and 4% of engineering apprenticeships in the United Kingdom.
Among the many reasons suggested for the gender imbalance, gender stereotypes are commonly cited. This is probably why women shy away from Mechanical Engineering, which is often seen as 'dirty' when compared to something like Chemical Engineering.
Honestly, I won't pretend to know the solution to the gender gap problem but various groups are trying different things.
Lego, the world's largest toy-maker, has acknowledged this problem and is launching a new line (pic below) of female scientist figurines to help address this issue. While having female Lego figurines is a good start, a figurine does not make a good role-model, nor a useful mentor.
Grassroots-driven female-focused events like Rails Girls KL and Penang – a one-day workshops that introduce beginner-friendly web application development to women of all ages – are an excellent effort to inculcate an interest for programming in women. Efforts like this help encourage women to take up STEM careers by building awareness and interest.
Women are increasingly being recognised for achievements in the field. An example of this is the Young Woman Engineer award given out by The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), Malaysia. These sorts of things should help develop role-models in the industry by highlighting their careers and achievements.
However, even at women-friendly events such as a recent Rails Girls workshop that I attended, where the participants were all women, the mentors were still nearly all male.
I think that we need to do something to address that too. This is where I think that the female minority in industry can and should take the lead. I hope that more women, from industry, volunteer at outreach events, and organise and run such events too.
Having more diversity in the work place is a good thing as it will bring different ideas and capabilities to bear, and I hope that the question will not vex me for too long.
Dr Shawn Tan is a chartered engineer who has been programming since the late 1980s. A former lecturer and research fellow, he minds his own business at Aeste while reading Law. He designs open-source microprocessors for fun. He can be reached via Twitter as @sybreon.
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