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Women in engineering – tackling sexism vs ‘fixing’ women’

22 Jun 2018 | Kay Steven Advance HE Policy Officer (Scotland) Kay Steven takes a look at Scotland’s approach to improving gender equality in engineering and how to avoid taking a deficit-model approach.

23rd June marks International Women in Engineering Day. Advance HE Policy Officer (Scotland) Kay Steven takes a look at Scotland’s approach to improving gender equality in engineering and how to avoid taking a deficit-model approach.

In Scotland, initiatives to increase women’s participation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) span all phases of the learner journey, from early years into adult education. Further initiatives such as Athena SWAN (now expanded to cover non-STEM subjects and all genders) focus on recruitment and promotion of women in STEM in universities and research institutes. Programmes aimed at women returning to STEM such as those run by Equate Scotland seek to address the shocking statistic that only 27% of women who qualify in STEM subjects at university are likely to remain in the industry.

Addressing equal access to STEM is high on the Scottish Government’s agenda, with the 2017 publication of a STEM Education and Training Strategy for Scotland including an explicit focus on tackling gender imbalances and ‘other inequities’. In 2016 Scottish Funding Council introduced Gender Action Plans, requiring all Scottish colleges and higher education institutions (HEIs) to address severe gender imbalances across subject areas (defined as any gender split greater than 75%/25%) by 2030.

With only 16% of engineering students and 2% of Modern Apprentices in Scotland being female, it’s clear that there’s a lot of work to be done to meet this ambitious target of at least 25% female engineering students in Scotland by 2030.

It is easy to point to research showing the confidence levels of female school pupils in subjects like maths and science are lower than male students. For example, a recent Young People in Scotland Survey 2017: STEM and language findings revealed that when asked about their reasons for not choosing or not intending to choose to study STEM, girls were significantly more likely than boys (40% to 17%) to report that they didn’t think they were very good at STEM subjects.

But girls aren’t born less confident. Unless we ask why girls have lower confidence in STEM subjects it’s too easy to fall into the trap of deficit-model thinking. We can’t focus all our efforts on building the confidence, resilience and aspiration of females without tackling the stereotypes, sexism and discrimination alive and well in our institutions, which contribute to the erosion of their confidence in the first place.

This week Advance HE is celebrating thirteen years of our Athena SWAN Charter (Happy Birthday Athena SWAN!) developed to recognise advancements of gender equality in universities and research institutions across representation, progression and success. There are currently 143 Athena SWAN members, holding 688 awards between them. With a focus across the career pipeline and the absence of women from senior academic, professional and support roles, Athena SWAN provides a framework to progress gender equality by changing and developing institutional policies, practices, action plans and culture. By requiring commitment and action from all levels of the organisation, the Charter doesn’t simply reward good intentions but rather requires leadership, data, action plans, reporting, accountability and evidence of improved outcomes.

Between 2015 and 2018 Advance HE (formerly Equality Challenge Unit) worked with 22 Scottish colleges and HEIs to design and trial interventions to improve equality in student access and recruitment in our Attracting Diversity project. A number of these institutions piloted schemes specifically focusing on increasing applications from female students into STEM subjects, including engineering. Whilst some focused on schools outreach work, the positive action initiatives trialled also included a focus on the internal structural barriers which contribute to low female applications and retention. These included reviewing and changing degree titles and entry criteria, providing enhanced offers to female applicants of mentoring and guaranteed industry placements, and developing single-sex open days and courses. This inward examination and willingness to change institutional systems, cultures, and offers are a key piece of the puzzle to tackle gender imbalance and inequality.

Continuing the theme of taking ownership over institutional cultures and systems, in partnership with Open Educational Practices in Scotland, Advance HE have designed a free online training resource Gender Equality in STEM for primary and secondary teachers aimed at addressing the gendered stereotypes and inequalities which contribute to the gender imbalance in STEM. Rather than taking an ‘aspirational’ approach, this course aims to develop teachers’ capacity to recognise and address unconscious bias in the classroom and sexism in the school environment. This mixed-methods course combines individual online learning, peer discussions with other teachers in the same school, and facilitating classroom activities across themes including gender stereotypes, unconscious bias, and building STEM capital. By learning as a cohort of teachers, this course aims to prompt a whole-school approach towards tackling gender inequality with a focus on improving female participation in STEM.

In our collective attempts to improve the gender balance in traditionally ‘male’ careers (typically higher paid and valued in line with the higher value society gives to male knowledge and labour), we must make visible the root causes of disadvantage. Reinforcing the message that girls can be anything they want to be (including scientists, mathematicians, astronauts, and engineers) won’t be enough if we’re not backing that up with action to transform the patriarchal cultures and systems which reinforce sexism. When we consider the sheer number of negative and stereotypical messages women and girls receive (in media, shops, games, families, literature, schools etc.) about their role in society and the penalties for transgressing them, it’s clear that one-off interventions aren’t going to make enough of a difference.

It’s imperative that throughout all initiatives aiming to improve female participation and success in engineering and other STEM areas we take an intersectional approach. Examining which groups are most and least likely to benefit from interventions will make visible to multiple and compounding disadvantages experienced by some women on account of race, disability, sexuality and socio-economic status. For example research into young people in Scotland’s attitudes to STEM showed that those from the most deprived areas (SIMD 1) were less likely than those in the least deprived areas (SIMD 5) to report that they had chosen to study or were intending to study a STEM subject (57% versus 71%). Without an intersectional analysis our interventions run the risk of benefiting only the most privileged within the groups we focus on (i.e. white, middle-class, able-bodied, straight women).

Let’s put our efforts into fixing broken and sexist systems, rather than ‘fixing’ those excluded and disadvantaged by them. Let’s change the culture which reinforces the message to females that engineering isn’t for them by addressing structural disadvantage, rather than planning one-off interventions. Let’s hold to account those (including ourselves) perpetuating systems which advantage the most privileged to redistribute power and opportunity, rather than plugging the gaps of a pipe-line built to benefit patriarchy. Let’s stamp out sexism at all levels in our schools, colleges, universities and workplaces by dealing with gendered bullying and harassment, rather than teaching females to develop a ‘tougher skin’. Let’s be reflective about what the source of the problem is and what part we have to play in it. Let’s commit to treat the cause not the symptoms.

#INWED18 #AthenaSWANis13 #AttractingDiversity #GenderEqualityinSTEM

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