Gender differences in STEM

When I was asked by the lovely folk at the Science Council to write an article, I read down the list of suggested topics and saw “Gender Differences in STEM*” and I immediately harrumphed, got grumpy and decided not to write about it because there aren’t any and why on earth do people have to keep on harping on about it. Why can people not just accept me as an engineer, why do I have to specifically be thought of as a female engineer, and thus have gender differences?! The more I grumped about it though, the more internal muttering there was, the more I realised that someone needed to write about the fact that there don’t need to be, and often aren’t, gender differences in STEM.

As I sit here writing this, I can look around the open plan engineering office and see 24 engineers and draftsmen. Only 2 of us are female. As the stats go, this isn’t actually bad odds for our industry as women represent just 6.9% of the engineering workforce in the UK. Admittedly though, engineering is one of the ‘worst offenders’ in terms of female representation in STEM occupations with women in science reaching the giddy heights of 39.4%. The fact that we’re only here in small numbers doesn’t negate the fact that we’re here though, and that the barriers to us being here are mainly in our own minds & society’s perception. The belief that STEM, and engineering in particular, are alike Yorkies: Not For Girls, is just not true.

What is sadly true is that in my short career I have faced some sexism, but it’s vanishing, it really is. The other sad truth is the low retention rate of new mothers. I think this is where the main difference lies – that women often do not feel that their workplaces will support them in family friendly working patterns, but perhaps the saddest thing about this is that actually there is no gender difference in the work place’s treatment of staff so it’s just that new fathers are not spending as much time with their children as they would maybe like, because of their employers. Even this though, the family ‘unfriendly’ working practises, and poor maternity leave consideration is improving, which you can read about here. All of which, is bringing more STEM related companies into the Times Top 50 Employers for Women.

But I didn’t want to write about the few negatives there still are. I wanted to write about how I can wear fabulous shoes  and matching nail varnish in the office & be a proper girly girl, and still go out on site the next day wrapped up in high-vis & safety boots, with my hair under a hard hat, that you couldn’t tell I was female anyway! I want to make it known that my gender doesn’t make a difference to my engineering capability and nor does my outfit. To be entirely honest, the only remaining gender differences left in STEM careers are the ones we make by our conspicuous absence. If you want to be a scientist or an engineer then your gender, ethnicity & background will only really matter to you, everyone else just wants to know you can do the sums.

* [STEM meaning Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics]


This blog post was written by Chloe Agg.

If you are female and considering a career in science then you may want to have a look at this website from the EU Commission, which includes profiles of women in science as well as six reasons why science needs you.