The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) industry has undoubtedly become one of the most important and influential industries in the 21st century. Think vaccination, the Internet, manufacturing, space exploration and R&D – it is very much impossible to separate ourselves from the presence and involvement of STEM in our everyday lives. Your smartphone, laptop and polio vaccination are all different products that come to be from the advancement in the STEM industry. It is hard to imagine a world without them, further emphasising the importance of the industry to society as it is.
As we zoom into the STEM industry, a thought provoking question emerges – How often do we hear of females entering the field? An article published by The Guardian on 31st March 2016 cited that Australia’s Office of Chief Scientist found that women made up less than one-fifth of Australians qualified in STEM, with engineering showing the largest gap. While the study found same number of male and female scientists, only 7% of engineers were women. The Atlantic also published an article in 18 Feb 2018 which said that in the US, only 27% of students taking the AP Computer Science are female, only 18% of computer science degree goes to women and that in Algeria, only 41% of college graduates in STEM are female. Of course, numbers and figures can only reveal so much and it is always best to ask further questions to dig out the plausible reasons for the cause. To shed some light on this issue, we interviewed two women who are currently working in the STEM industry to share their opinions on the matter.
Cynthia Theresa is currently working as a Process & Equipment Engineer in Singapore and is one of the few female engineers to have made herself a name in the demanding and competitive engineering field. An Indonesian by birth, she successfully completed her study in Chemical Engineering to pursue her passion in becoming an engineer in Singapore. Our next interviewee would like to remain anonymous due to professional reason and will henceforth be referred to by the pseudonym “Jane”. Jane is currently working as a Social Worker in Justice Space here in Melbourne. She is highly passionate about the issue and is excited to share her views on the matter.
We began by asking the reasons for the gender gap when it comes to the number of employees in the STEM industry.
Cynthia said that there seemed to be a preconceived notion that engineering is a male’s specialty. While this is true when it comes to physical labour, engineering has developed such that women can also play an active role in the industry. She stated that in terms of the management work involved in engineering, women can play an integral role in helping to micromanage the details of the execution. With more and more automation being carried out in the production chain, it may well be a matter of time before manual labour is completely unnecessary. At that point, the preconceived notion of engineering being a labour intensive and therefore a male dominated field, should slowly be losing its ground.
Jane shared that her personal take on the matter was that there seems to be a lack of female role models which ultimately leads to a lower uptake for women in the STEM industry. She believed that by attributing the success of womanhood to more than simply being a mother, it may encourage people into changing their views of female in the STEM industry. With more women joining the industry, it can also serve as an encouragement for other women to follow a similar path.
We also brought up the introduction of quota as a possible solution to the problem and asked for their opinions.
Cynthia responded by sharing her view, “I think quota is a poor tool to be used. While it does seem to tackle the problem in the short run, it may be deemed as forcing an outcome just for the sake of achieving a goal. I join the engineering field not because I am obligated to but because I am passionate about it. I think passion should be the key driving force in your career choice. You will feel so much more fulfilled once you are able to turn your passion into your everyday work.”
Jane expressed her worry over using quota as a solution, “While there is still some deep-seated prejudice regarding women in STEM field, placing a quota system favouring women may foster more animosity between genders. What we need is a layered solution to the problem. Whenever applicable, consider promoting and hiring women into the STEM field – especially if they have equal merit and experience as the male counterpart. Implement zero tolerance toward sexism both overt and covert. Arrange for more flexible work arrangement during maternity or asking more questions to the normally overlooked female cohort. Encourage ideas to grow and voices to be heard. Rather than looking at a snapshot of a woman’s work, consider the winding road she has travelled to reach to this point in her life. Assist whenever we can, even with something as simple as listening to her story.”
The STEM industry may still be heavily lopsided. But given time and the rising demand of women involvement in the field, there may come a time when women are able to thrive in the STEM industry as much as their male counterparts. Quoting from Jane, it will do us well to remember that “It is a marathon, not a sprint.”
Text: Edward Tanoto
Photos: Cynthia Theresa