There are hundreds of women in STEM programs nationally. Do they work?

There are hundreds of women in STEM programs nationally. Do they work?

Just seven of these 337 gender equity programs identified have published publicly facing evaluation data, according to new research.
STEM

There are 337 gender equity programs and initiatives running nationally in Australia, and many more offered within organisations and at a state and local level. Are they doing their job? Well according to new research, there’s little evidence to say that they do.

Just seven of these 337 gender equity programs identified have published publicly facing evaluation data, according to the new research out of ANU by Merryn McKinnon and published in the Australian Journal of Social Issues. And just one of those seven includes data that goes beyond self reports of satisfaction and enjoyment.

These programs — often supported by Federal Budget funding — are not without merit. Their very presence does at least something to highlight the need to further support and engage women in STEM.

And in many cases measuring their impact is difficult, given they may target high school girls or aim to encourage women and girls into STEM. As research author McKinnon writes, how do you evaluate if a student’s experience of a STEM-related program in school results in her pursuing a career in STEM? Often, given the challenges of such evaluations, there’s an over reliance on “framing and storytelling”.

The collective force of these programs together is also beneficial, but again difficult to evaluate, unless you’re purely looking at the impact on the numbers — there’s been a little movement in the past couple of decades, and we’ve seen women rise to major leadership positions in this space, but still not enough has changed.

Indeed, one glance at the numbers and you see that we are a long way from no longer needing programs and funding to support women in STEM.

But are these programs as most are currently framed enough to fix some of the more widespread and systemic issues facing women working in STEM? Issues that can drive highly-educated women out: like sexism, sexual harassment, bias and career progression pathways that fail to fairly support those who take time out to have children or need to work part time or flexibility?

Despite the work of those working in STEM never being greater during 2020, the Pandemic’s impact has resulted in numerous women in STEM being sidelined, having to step back or down, or out of the workforce all together. As we’ve previously reported on Women’s Agenda, this has been particularly true for early and middle career researchers, especially with the loss of university funding exacerbating the issue (and government support for the sector waning for some time, as three immunologists recently shared).

I worry that women in STEM programs, and funding announcements supporting them, can give the impression that something’s being done, and therefore the challenges facing women in such fields are on the way to being solved. Then if we fail to see the progress of such initiatives, we can turn back and say, ‘well the problem was women all along’. But we know from research as well as some of the many brilliant women in STEM, including in some of the country’s top leadership positions, that is certainly not the case. The problem is that the workforce as it currently stands was not created with women in mind. Issues that are further exacerbated in many industries and roles within STEM.

This week, an excellent Twitter thread emerged from Dr Amy Heffernan on mentoring as an initiative for driving gender equity for women in STEM. Mentoring is one piece that often features in women in STEM programs, especially those that are created within individual organisations.

Mentoring’s an important strategy, Dr Heffernan says, but it’s not the answer. It’s no silver bullet. Indeed for many women, an active sponsor would actually be more effective. Dr Heffernan also notes that mentoring program can become simple options to “check the ‘women in STEM” box compared with addressing the more systematic inequities. And without collecting the robust data, we can’t actually assess the effectiveness of these programs (and such data, she adds, need to include a control group, or else we don’t know what to compare it to)

Finally, she suggests that mentoring as a solution is another means for shifting the responsibility from organisations to individuals.

When it comes to some of the barriers facing women in STEM, it’s possible that programs that aim to encourage more girls into the sector will help in the long run, scholarships will directly support the individual women who win them, and networking initiatives may help improve connections.

But what about the women in the sector right now? What about those — especially in 2020 — who simply can’t get over the hurdles placed in front of them? Those who have already studied and started their careers? We invested in these women, and these women gave their time, their expertise and their early years of experience. It would seem the best possible investment would be to do everything possible to ensure that these women can get ahead.

McKinnon argues it’s time to shift the focus. To move beyond the delivery of women in STEM programs to instead critically engage with what programs should be offered, to whom and why.

She says many of the initiatives that her research examined are “tinkering around the edges”. “Many of these benefit an individual while very few actively address the fundamental, systemic changes which are required to truly bring about equity in STEM.”

But she adds that with these collective efforts, there is potential for fundamental change if we can get the “disparate pieces to work together.”

To make the most of such collective efforts, McKinnon recommends that policymakers and those responsible for funding decisions aim to support programs that address the big cultural and systemic issues that are outlined in the Decadal Plan for Women in STEM: such as processes around recruitment, grants, promotions, access to parental and carers leave.

Getting there relies on evidence. Evidence that includes controlled data, as Dr Heffernan suggests. We need to know how to best narrow STEM’s gender gap, otherwise we risk throwing precious and limited resources at the wrong things.

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