Let's get women into STEM - but it's not the only battle we need to fight for workplace equality

Sunday, 10 November 2019


Much of the discussion in recent years around increasing women's workforce participation rates and closing the gender pay gap has focused on encouraging girls and young women to consider careers in STEM - science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Women and girls considering or in STEM fields should certainly be encouraged, institutionalised sexism and other barriers to their careers dismantled. But the focus on getting women into STEM as the solution to women's workforce participation sidesteps dealing with the full reality of the gendered nature of work - a reality we need to address to achieve anything like real gender equality.


There has always been gender disparity in the STEM fields. High paying, prestigious careers in medicine, engineering, research and IT have long been seen as the domain of men, a view that is inculcated from early childhood. I'm sure women even younger than me can remember the message at school that girls just aren't good at maths; and it was as recently as 1992 that Mattel came out with the Teen Talk Barbie that spouted phrases such as "math class is tough" (along with profound utterances such as "want to go shopping?" and "let's plan our dream wedding!"). Today, parents looking to purchase a science kit for their daughter can choose from science kits or science kits for girls, where your budding professor can explore the world of physics and chemistry by making facial masks, shampoo and bath bombs. All anecdotal evidence says that gendering of kids' toys and clothes has gotten worse in recent years. All this when science proves that boys and girls start out with the same maths ability.

So there is a need to encourage girls and young women to enter into fields previously seen as the fiefdom as men. When individuals and society miss out on talented young women not using their talents and interests to their full potential, we all are the worse for it.

Public institutions have woken up to this, and have gotten on board with being seen to do something. In April 2019, the Australian Government launched its Advancing Women in STEM strategy, aimed at "increas(ing) gender equity in STEM education and careers". The Australian Academy of Science, Science & Technology Australia and the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science all have women in STEM programs going.

But all this is just one side of the struggle for gender equity. The other side is harder to quantify, depressing and boring, and much more difficult. It involves taking a long look at all the non STEM careers, the work seen as women's work, the social sciences and caring professions. In late stage capitalism, it seems inevitable that these fields would be undervalued. They don't often add much to the national GDP; indeed they tend to suck up "taxpayer dollars", educating future workers, caring for those no longer able to work, supporting the disadvantaged for whom economic participation may never be more than a personal dream.

Men's rights campaigners like to point out that women have higher levels of university participation than men, with the subtext being that "well, women go to university more than men, so if they can't turn that education into a high paying career it's their own damn fault". But rates of university attendance started to pull ahead at the same time that the professions of nursing and teaching - those women's workhorses - were professionalised, with the training once performed through hospitals and teacher's colleges now requiring a university degree. Women poured into universities to achieve the required professional degrees, but while their university attendance went up, their pay didn't. Teaching and nursing are underpaid professions and now the still mostly women who want to enter those professions do so after with the debt accrued from four years at university, debt they will find much harder to pay off than the finance or computer science major who studied for a similar period (and without having to complete the workforce placements, periods described by nursing students particularly as punishing shifts of unpaid work ripe for bullying by their overworked and underpaid supervisors and colleagues).

We claim as a society to cherish children and the elderly, but as Royal Commission into Aged Care has most recently shown, workers in these fields are overworked and underpaid, often dealing with terrible working conditions, because caring is dismissed as women's work. That's when the work is paid at all. Women do the bulk of unpaid care work for sick, disabled and elderly relatives. And across the community services sector, work that should be performed by paid employees has, due to a lack of funding, been assigned to unpaid volunteers. What could it do to reduce the unemployment rate if we began to value and pay for all this work?

All this, of course, translates to women facing high levels of poverty at the end of their working lives; as the columnist Glosswitch wrote in New Statesman, "indirect sexism – male-default workplaces and work patterns, economic structures which rely on women’s unpaid care work – allow(s) inequality to build like sediment. By the time you’re drawing your pension, there’s no way back."

There's been baby steps (no pun intended) on some of these issues, such as paid parental leave and flexible work arrangements slowly starting to creep in to some work places. But one of the male default work issues we're yet to address is the idea that traditionally male dominated work is paid much more. When we compare like for roughly like here - the apprenticeships of the hairdresser and the plumber, the four year degrees of the school teacher and the engineer - there's a definite pattern. The argument is sometimes made that men in those roles face more inherent dangers on the job, but this ignores the vicarious trauma felt by people in care careers; the decided lack of trauma your average systems admin suffers on the job; and that no one  wants people hurt at work, but the parties who argue against feminism are all too often the ones that cut the "red tape" that keeps walls from collapsing when they get into government and reduce workplace safety standards.

What do we value as a society? Economic growth? Or do we actually value our most vulnerable citizens, as we always claim? Then we should pay the work to care for them fairly. But this debate goes beyond the televised stock footage of children playing and the frail elderly using walkers, designed to tug at the heart strings, that we see whenever there's a story about pay rises for aged care workers to fill a news bulletin. Traditionally "women's work" needs to be valued, not just because of who it's being done for, but to value the skills, knowledge and education of the women doing it. The soft sciences, nursing, education - until we value the work done in these fields, we'll never achieve workplace equality no matter how many talented young women take up deserved engineering scholarships. Encouraging the careers of women in STEM is only half the battle.  
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