Women in STEM professions are talented, committed, and passionate about their chosen professions. Women increase the diversity of thought, talent and experience in STEM industries, and boost innovation and creativity. As leaders, they deliver improved decision-making; enhanced employee satisfaction and organisational culture; stronger global competitiveness; and greater financial performance.1 Consequently, they are vitally important contributors to the technological, digital and STEM-driven solutions the world requires.
However, women continue to be underrepresented in STEM industries. It’s essential that women in STEM understand the barriers to career progression and leadership that exist for them and learn how to navigate these barriers positively. As a result, they will have improved ability to influence their own careers, develop as future leaders and drive cultural change for all STEM women.
This article outlines key barriers for the retention and advancement of women in STEM, including into leadership roles. In addition, it highlights some key protective factors that help overcome these barriers.
Women continue to be underrepresented in STEM
According to Australia’s Department of Industry’s STEM Equity Monitor 2021,2 latest data shows that women comprise 28% of the STEM research workforce and 28% of the workforce in STEM-qualified industries, but participate in only 13% of STEM-qualified occupations*.
Women are underrepresented in senior level roles in most STEM industries*, filling only 11% of CEO/Head of Business level roles in STEM-qualitied industries, and 18% of professor-level STEM academic positions.
This means that most STEM organisations are missing out on those benefits that women bring to organisations, including as leaders. It also means STEM women are not reaching their potential or contributing to their chosen profession the way they would like. Nor are they developing as future leaders.
Key STEM leadership barriers for women
Women in STEM fields experience significant systemic cultural and process barriers that limit their retention and movement into leadership roles. This includes formal leadership positions and informal leadership roles. These barriers are overt yet invisible, ingrained and often normalised in the culture of STEM. They exist due to a complex web of factors underpinned by STEM disciplines being primarily male-dominated.
The XY factor
These factors include masculine leadership styles, and a culture of masculine hegemony that results in stereotypically male traits being idealized as the norm. Women in STEM do not fit the model of what STEM culture considers a STEM specialist. As a result, they suffer gender stereotypes, bias and discrimination. This can show up in the workplace as fewer resources and professional development opportunities than men and more limited career options. Consequently, work environments can be disempowering and STEM women can experience professional isolation. Women can feel pushed out of their chosen area of expertise because it doesn’t support and enable them.3
Sexual harassment continues to be an issue for STEM women. In a 2019 survey by Science and Technology Australia,4 half of all female respondents had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Women who were in workplaces with an equal, or close to equal representation of men and women, reported lower rates of sexual harassment.
A lack of female role models
At the early-career level, women in STEM suffer a lack of the female role models and mentors which are so important to developing female leaders. Role models and mentors provide examples of female leadership and share their lessons from lived experience. At mid-career level women suffer a lack of sponsors and less access to development opportunities than men. Like other women who are a numerical minority in organisational settings, STEM women and leaders will experience additional stressors due to their high visibility as ‘tokens’. This includes, for example, greater performance stressors and expectations that they represent all women in their organisation.
In addition, being a woman in STEM can lead to challenge of one’s sense of self, a phenomenon known as ‘woman-scientist identity interference’.5 Woman-science identity interference results in lower academic performance, lower self-esteem and life satisfaction, and greater levels of depression.
Not all women in STEM will experience these barriers. For those that do, a woman’s negative experiences will likely impact their resilience, self-efficacy and self-confidence. Their desire to remain in workplace environments where they are suffering gender discrimination or not being supported in their careers is likely to drop. Consequently, the impacts then perpetuate as barriers themselves.
There are a range of protective factors that will reduce the negative impacts of existing barriers for women in STEM. These protective factors help individuals deal more effectively with the barriers themselves, and the negative impacts they have.
Resilience is a foundational protective factor that enables women to deal effectively with negative impacts. Resilience also supports the range of other protective factors, particularly identifying and negotiating unconscious bias. Additional protective factors include undertaking professional development, understanding who you are as a person and what is important to you, and developing as a leader.
The protective factor of ‘voice’ is the sense that one has agency and influence within an organisational context. Voice moderates the relationship between more negative and sexist climate perceptions and lower job satisfaction. Visibility – promoting oneself strategically and intentionally, communicating with influence and sharing expertise – contributes to job satisfaction and career progression. In addition, participating in mentoring relationships and building strategic networks are known to support and advance women in leadership and STEM.
STEM women will gain greater influence over their career progression through leveraging the above protective factors. Moreover, they will make a positive difference to their STEM profession and the culture of STEM industries.
*STEM-qualified industries and STEM-qualified occupations are those where more than half the workforce reported a STEM qualification in the 2016 Census of Population and Housing.2
- Dixon-Fyle S, Dolan K, Hunt V, and Prince S (2020). Diversity Wins: How inclusion matters, McKinsey & Company, New York, https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/diversity-wins-how-inclusion-matters, accessed 7 September 2021.
- Advancing Women in STEM (2019). Australian Government Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, https://www.industry.gov.au/sites/default/files/March%202020/document/advancing-women-in-stem-strategy.pdf, accessed 20 June 2021.
- Professionals Australia (2018). All Talk: Gap between policy and practice a key obstacle to gender equity in STEM – 2018 Women in STEM Professions Survey Report, https://www.professionalsaustralia.org.au/professional-women/wp-content/uploads/sites/48/2018/08/2018-Women-in-STEM-Survey-Report_web.pdf, accessed 7 September 2021.
- Science and Technology Australia (2019). Sexual harassment a significant issue for STEM sector, https://scienceandtechnologyaustralia.org.au/sexual-harassment-a-significant-issue-for-stem-sector/, accessed 3 August 2021.
- Settles IH (2014). Women in STEM: Challenges and determinants of success and well-being. Psychological Science Agenda October 2014, https://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2014/10/women-stem, accessed 3 September 2021.