There has been a push to increase the number of women in STEM-related jobs, and this comes with an assumption that it’s a win-win situation: Society benefits from increased numbers of STEM specialists in the workforce while women reap the benefits of higher-status employment. However, labour economists Michael Dockery and Sherry Bawa of Curtin University report that women in STEM are experiencing a surprising number of barriers compared to other women with degrees, including higher levels of unemployment and higher levels of job dissatisfaction. This policy analysis piece was originally presented at the inaugural Australian Gender Economics Workshop, held in Perth on 8 and 9 February, 2018.
Women in STEM – why the concern?
It is widely accepted that Australia needs more women studying science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) related subjects at school and university. As the arguments go, employers face shortages of STEM qualified workers; a high proportion of the ‘jobs of the future’ will require STEM skills and knowledge; Australia’s international competitiveness risks being eroded because it lags behind other advanced economies in terms of student enrolments in mathematics and science subjects and in the proportion of STEM qualified workers; and boosting our STEM workforce would generate billions of additional dollars in GDP (see for example reports by the Australian Industry Group 2013; Office of the Chief Scientist 2012, 2013, 2016; PwC 2015). Perhaps most critically, increasing the diversity of STEM researchers will also increase the quality of the research itself. While women now substantially outnumber men in university enrolments, they comprise less than 30% of people with STEM qualifications, and only 16% of the STEM workforce. The 2008 Review of Australian Higher Education (the Bradley Review) identified women studying in STEM courses as a key target group for increasing participation rates in higher education. The research is clear that this is not due to inability.
So it seems straightforward, right? Encourage girls and young women to study science and maths subjects at high school, and complete a STEM course at university. As labour economists, our research tells a more complex story. In a paper presented to the inaugural Australian Gender Economics Workshop held in Perth in February, we suggest the need for caution in accepting the mantra that women and the country will benefit from increased female participation in STEM.
What are women’s experiences of STEM-related employment in Australia?
In Australian research the STEM workforce has typically been defined as workers with university qualifications at the bachelor degree level or higher in the fields of study of Natural and Physical Sciences (NPS), Information Technology (IT) or Engineering and Related Technologies (ERT). A body of international literature suggests women working in STEM-related occupations and industries face substantial labour market barriers, including larger gender wage gaps, being less likely to find a job well-matched to their skills, limited career progression and a high incidence of sexual harassment.
We analysed data from the Australian Census and the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey (HILDA) to look at outcomes for women who gain STEM qualifications. Comparing data from the 2006 and 2016 Census, there was a small increase in female representation among the population with STEM qualifications at the university level from 27.6% to 29.7%. Female representation is now close to parity among those with NPS qualifications, at 48.5%, and much lower in IT (26.2%). It is the ERT field that is most male-dominated, but also the one in which female representation is growing most quickly, rising from 12.3% to 16.1% in the ten years to 2016. Despite the rhetoric about labour shortages, the unemployment rate for STEM qualified workers in 2006 was higher than for university graduates with non-STEM qualifications for both men and women. By 2016 this had reversed for men, but women with STEM qualifications were still more likely to be out of work, with an unemployment rate of 5.1% compared to 4.1% for other female university graduates.
A more detailed look at outcomes can be gained from the HILDA data. Commencing in 2001, HILDA is a panel survey of individuals from a representative sample of private Australian households. Within selected households, all occupants aged 15 and over are surveyed annually. Around 13,000 individuals from over 7,000 households have responded in each year, with year-on-year attrition rates averaging below 10 percent. In each year the survey records respondents’ highest level of qualification, and an expanded education module was included in waves 2012 and 2016 in which individuals were also asked the field of that qualification. Limiting the sample to university graduates, we were able to construct intervals – of potentially up to 16 years - in which persons with and without STEM qualifications could be identified. Their STEM status could then be correlated to a rich set of outcomes, including employment status, wages and job satisfaction. It also allowed outcomes to be modelled using multivariate analyses which controlled for a range of other individual characteristics, such as age, marital status and sector of employment.
A poor outlook for women in STEM
The results indicate that compared to other female graduates, those with STEM qualifications are significantly less likely to be participating in the labour market and less satisfied with their employment opportunities. Among those who are employed, women with STEM qualifications are much less likely to agree that their skills and abilities are well utilised in their jobs. Surprisingly, women with STEM qualifications are more satisfied with their pay than other university-qualified women. In fact women with STEM and non-STEM qualifications earn, on average, similar hourly wage rates, and these are around 10% lower wages than male graduates overall. However, for men, holding a STEM qualification is associated with an hourly wage premium of +9%. The fact that no such premium is observed for women means that among the STEM qualified workforce the gender wage gap is around 18% in favour of men, almost double that observed in the graduate labour force overall.
Importantly, we wish to highlight that the overall results mask a more complex picture within the three fields of study, with the caveat that the findings become more uncertain in analyzing outcomes for sub-groups with smaller samples. Females with IT qualifications face markedly higher unemployment rates than their male counterparts and are accordingly very dissatisfied with their employment opportunities, while those with natural and physical science qualifications earn lower wages and are significantly more likely to drop out of the labour force altogether than other women. It is women with IT and NPS-related degrees that feel their skills and abilities are not well utilised in their jobs. In contrast, women with engineering and related qualifications earn 20% higher wages than other female graduates, and appear to earn no less than men with comparable qualifications and experience. There is no evidence their skills are under-utilised. It is women with ERT qualifications that account for the satisfaction with pay noted above for women with STEM qualifications. At first sight a likely explanation for the poorer labour market outcomes of women in STEM is that they disproportionately enter occupations and workplaces that are highly male dominated, and consequently face discrimination and other gender-based cultural barriers to career success. However, ERT defies this explanation, being the field that is both the most male dominated and offering no evidence of inferior outcomes for women.
The policy response needs to follow the evidence
In light of this evidence, policies to encourage women into STEM may be naïve. The arguments of the economic benefits of a more STEM-savvy workforce may or may not be correct – governments are not necessarily superior to existing market processes in matching supply to future skills demands, interest groups even less so. The labour market evidence, notably unemployment rates, does not provide strong support for the existence of looming shortages. Even so, is it fair to expect women to enter non-traditional fields for the social good but to the potential detriment to their personal careers, earnings and quality of working life? Policies to promote women in STEM need to be accompanied by demand-side measures to address the barriers women then face in the labour market. Positive action to change attitudes and behaviours in the IT sector, in particular, seem warranted. Alternatively, or in addition, compensatory measures could be provided in the form of scholarships or tax breaks under the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS).
A stronger evidence based is certainly needed before such policies are promoted further, and there are currently significant deficiencies in the data, including conceptual issues. Why aren’t qualifications in medicine and in agricultural, environment and related studies included as STEM? Why count only university-level qualifications and not intermediate technical qualifications? The research reveals the importance of not painting all STEM fields with the one brush. Research based on larger samples at the level of individual fields and sub-fields of study would be highly valuable for drawing policy implications. This could most readily be achieved via access to Australian Taxation Office’s data already collected through their administration of the HECS scheme, potentially offering confidentialised records on employment status and earnings for the high proportion of graduates that leave university with a HECS debt, matched to university data on field of study, level of qualification, institution and other aspects of their tertiary education. Unfortunately the ATO has been reluctant to date to provide such data to researchers, despite its obvious relevance to issues surrounding the economics of higher education in Australia.
The paper “Labour Market implications of promoting women’s participation in STEM in Australia” is currently under peer review for publication in the Australian Journal of Labour Economics.
To read more from the Australian Gender Economics Workshop, see:
Australian Industry Group (2013) Lifting our Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) Skills. Available at http://www.utas.edu.au/stem/latest-news/news/the-australian-industry-group-releases-report-on-stem-skills
Bradley, D., Noonan, P., Nugent, H. and Scales, B. (2008). Review of Higher Education: Final Report (The Bradley Review), Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. Canberra: AGPS. Available at http://www.voced.edu.au/content/ngv%3A32134
Office of the Chief Scientist (2016), ‘Australia’s Stem Workforce: Science, technology, Engineering and Mathematics Report’, Commonwealth of Australia, March. Available at http://www.chiefscientist.gov.au/2016/03/report-australias-stem-workforce/
Office of the Chief Scientist (2012), ‘Mathematics, Engineering & Science in the National Interest’, Australian Government, May. Available at
Office of the Chief Scientist (2013), ‘Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics in the National Interest: A Strategic Approach: A Position Paper’, Commonwealth of Australia, July. Available at http://www.chiefscientist.gov.au/2013/07/science-technology-engineering-and-mathematics-in-the-national-interest-a-strategic-approach/
PwC (2015), A smart move: future proofing Australia’s workforce by growing skills in science, technology engineering and maths, PwC, April. Available at https://www.pwc.com.au/pdf/a-smart-move-pwc-stem-report-april-2015.pdf