Female STEM graduates ‘deserting their disciplines’

Women leave STEM at transition stage from university to work, Australian study finds

July 6, 2021
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Women with the aptitude, resilience and self-belief to pursue science, technology, engineering and maths degrees are less likely to work in STEM-related fields than men, even after outperforming them at university.

Australian research has identified an under-recognised “leakage point” in the STEM career pathway, with recent female STEM graduates less than 60 per cent as likely as their male counterparts to have science, technology or engineering jobs – even though they are around 5 percentage points more likely to complete their degrees by the age of 25.

The findings suggest that policymakers may be overlooking a critical inflexion point in their efforts to boost equity in the STEM workforce. Interventions are largely aimed at cultivating girls’ interest in science and maths at school, while making STEM workforces more family friendly. But the study, funded by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, suggests more is needed.


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Co-author Daniel Edwards, of the Australian Council for Educational Research, said it was well recognised that women’s career prospects declined in STEM when they had children. But he questioned whether such issues determined job choices in the early-to-mid twenties, well before many university-educated women reached child-rearing age.

He said educational administrators worked hard to promote STEM to schoolgirls. “Yet they’re not taking up STEM occupations, or the opportunities are not there. We don’t want to build up their hopes and expectations, only for them to get to the end [of university] and not have anywhere to go,” he said.

The study, based on data from the Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth, tracked the fortunes of more than 3,300 Australians who had turned 15 in 2003 and participated in the survey for up to 12 years.

Dr Edwards said the study could not explain why successful students were spurning STEM careers. But it suggested that interventions such as the federal government’s Job-ready Graduates reforms, which reduced fees for STEM courses while raising them in the humanities, may have limited effect.

“The assumption is that if you do this course, you will then go into this occupation,” he said. “There probably needs to be better support to make sure that happens, if that’s the policy mandate.”

The report recommends that universities provide more job placement, internship and work-integrated learning opportunities for later-year female STEM students. But it says universities have improved such efforts in the years since the study cohort went through university.

The researchers, somewhat predictably, found that female participants had been less than one-third as likely as males to start STEM degrees in the first place. Women avoided STEM at university even if they had taken multiple maths and science subjects, including advanced maths, at high school.

The study also found that high school students’ “instrumental motivation” in maths was a stronger indicator of future STEM study than their academic achievement. “You didn’t actually have to be good at maths,” Dr Edwards said. “Students who thought that maths was useful in the real world were much more likely to go on with it.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

new
I posit most have seen how the 'established' female academics behave and don't want such a life, especially when those established academics behave as 'queen-bees'. One Australian female academic I know was like that when she was working in an English University, now she's one of the most powerful academics in Aus and I doubt she's changed "a leopard can't change it's spots"...

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