A culture that devalues & excludes: Why women are leaving STEM jobs

A culture that devalues & excludes: Damning study shows why women are leaving STEM

A new survey of 3000 Australians working in STEM has revealed that 66% of women felt their voices were devalued in their work, and 41% of women experience a sexist culture compared to 8% of men.

The cross-industry research from Male Champions of Change and Accenture, “Harnessing our innovation potential”, explored what women are thinking, experiencing, and feeling in their careers and the results aren’t pretty.

It shows that 54% women have considered quitting their role. It’s grim considering just 16% of Australia’s STEM-qualified workforce is female.

“Women in STEM experience significantly more barriers to progression than men and unacceptably high levels of everyday sexism, pointing to a culture in STEM that excludes women, minimises their contributions and devalues their voices,” the report concludes.

“Everyday sexism is pervasive and a driver of women’s attrition,” Ann Sherry AO, Convenor of Male Champions of Change STEM, said.

She said the sexist cultural norms “are so deeply embedded that they spit women out. Girls are coming into an industry that doesn’t respect them,” Sherry told the Financial Review.

The top reason women leave their STEM jobs is the belief that there remains a lack of opportunities for promotion and no pathway to leadership. Almost half of the women surveyed (47%) reported an opportunity deficiency for promotion and absence of pathway to leadership in their roles.

The belief that there’s more opportunity to progress in another profession and a lack of flexible arrangements are also factors.

These issues are not exclusive to STEM careers. Across the board, women cite lack of flexibility and taking on majority of household duties as disrupting their chances at excelling in their careers.

Unequal pay doesn’t just exist in STEM but within the industry 30% of women experience unequal pay for the same work.

“We know diversity helps drive innovation, and women’s representation in leadership is particularly critical for delivering disruptive innovation,” Sherry said. “We simply must do more to unlock and access this untapped and under-represented talent pool.”

women                                                                        Ann Sherry

Gender stereotyping is prolific in STEM with 47% of women surveyed saying they have experienced it. Gender stereotyping manifests in comments, minor interactions, behaviour that is often brushed off as ‘harmless’ or ‘unintentional’. Micro-aggressions are seemingly small, but  often, they’re persistent, sustained, and almost dangerously invisible.

It’s a similar story in architecture and in gaming; two domains that are widely known to be male-dominated. There, women also experience daily migro-aggressions that chip away at their self esteem and professionalism; when you’re a minority in an environment, you might naturally feel ‘othered’.

To experience additional discrimination on a daily basis compounds these feelings of un-belonging. If this persists, year after year, wouldn’t you begin asking, ‘Why would I stay?’ 

And then there is the issue of sexist ‘jokes’ and offensive comments 40% of women face.

Jokes in a workplace aren’t inherently bad but when they’re delivered and executed at the expense of one’s dignity and professionalism, it becomes a toxic, discriminatory weapon.

“Humour remains one of the few ways one can reclaim one’s humanity,   Thessaly La Force says recently in New York Times says. “It offers an opportunity to tell the kinds of stories that are difficult to say too earnestly — to say out loud what doesn’t always make sense.”

But jokes that are derogatory and gender-based are always insidious.

Lisa Harvey-Smith, astronomer and STEM Ambassador said that the findings show there exists bias and discrimination in workplaces.

“A lack of senior female leaders and slower career progression are major factors in the disproportionate exodus of women from STEM careers. No amount of mentoring, nor sheer numbers of young women crammed into the pipeline will make up for a broken system when it devalues women’s perspectives, makes their contributions invisible and makes balancing their responsibilities at work and home impossibly hard.”

women                                                                 Lisa Harvey-Smith

Male Champions of Change teamed up with Accenture for this survey. The program was the brainchild of former Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner Liz Broderick. She set the group up in 2015 and selected a group of male leaders with the purpose of advocating for and acting to advance gender equality.

It’s 2019, and there remains stark gender gaps in leadership, unequal pay and an imbalance on who shoulders the responsibility for care. As STEM Ambassador Harvey-Smith  says: “When we perpetuate the systems that entrench gender roles and disadvantage women, no number of training and support mechanisms for women will work.” 

The report also showed that women are motivated by “the opportunity to explore and solve ecological and scientific issues facing the world”, whereas men are more likely to be motivated by “earning potential.”

Professor Vicki Chen, Executive Dean of Engineering, Architecture and IT at University of Queensland said, “There are certain pivotal times in people’s careers that make a huge difference. That’s what we want to be more in tune with, providing those particular little pushes, even if it’s just a conversation in the hallway. Doing STEM is an enabler for you to go and do whatever you want in the future.”

Alex Stonehouse was the first woman to join the Sound Processor mechanical engineering team at medical device company Cochlear. She now heads Cochlear’s team to develop the next generation of technology in sound processing. She said, “I was more or less one of only a couple of people in the whole department that was on any sort of flexible work arrangements, so it felt like a real kind of privilege and I needed to almost hide it a little bit.”

So, what are the recommendations?

The report recommends that gender equality in STEM be addressed from two directions – with an urgent need for cultural change as well as a rethink of systems so they support women and men to thrive equally in STEM.

They want more focus on visible sponsorship of women in STEM from senior leaders and individualised programs to foster and support women’s careers in STEM. And of course, address the gender pay gap.


They’ve left that open for private firms to figure out. But considering that 34% of respondents work for government agencies, the government should do something about this too.

The report marks out key steps to take in improving the statistics of women’s participation in STEM industries: attract, support and retain women.

How do they propose to attract women? Offer flexible work and parental leave. How do they propose to retain women? Redesign exit interviews and conduct comprehensive reviews to learn why women leave STEM roles and to understand patterns.

What else? Set a target of 50/50 gender balance for leadership opportunities and  sponsor women working in STEM roles across their careers. They also recommend “listening to what everyday sexism looks like in your organisation, and empower all employees to call it out.”

Unfortunately, our capitalist, corporate infrastructures make it almost impossible to segregate one’s moral and ethical values as a human to our economic stability. As I said above, it’s a cultural change that needs to be driven by society, culture, industry and government.

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