In a move to reduce the gender gap in STEM, the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) has announced that from 2020, all women students applying to study engineering, IT or construction will receive 10 adjustment points added to their ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank).
The decision, which was approved by the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board, was made in an attempt to encourage more women to choose to study what have traditionally been male-dominated fields. According to Engineers Australia, women make up only 13% of the engineering workforce.
“We need to change now, in order to effect short and long- term change where opportunities to develop careers and contribute to Australian progress and innovation should be available to all,” said Dr Arti Agrawal, Director UTS Women in Engineering and IT (WiEIT).
Arti stressed that the standards or quality of the degree would not change. “All students who take up the courses must go through the same rigorous degree requirements of examinations, tests, studios and internships,” she said. “Getting to uni is only the start of their engineering journey; they have to truly earn their degree.”
In addition to the bold decision announced today, UTS has other programs in place to increase the involvement of women in STEM, including a high school outreach program and an undergraduate mentoring program.
Justine Romanis, the National Manager for Professional Diversity and STEM at Engineers Australia, supported the move by UTS. “We need to be disruptive – what we have been doing to date is just not working,” she said.
However, the decision was not without controversy. We asked some women in engineering for their reaction. Here’s what they said:
Francesca Maclean PhD BEng (Hons) BSc
“We need to recognise the multiple barriers to young women’s participation in STEM that are present before they even apply to engineering at university.
“They do not have equal access to STEM education given their gendered socialisation, the masculinisation of maths and physics curriculums, and the negative stereotypes about women and maths / science perpetuated by pop culture, and even parents and teachers. Some women never stand a chance in studying the right subjects or getting the right ATAR to study engineering at uni, but that isn’t what determines a great engineer.
“Engineering has been plagued by an over-representation of men for decades, and it is not changing despite media campaigns and outreach programs. To increase women’s representation in industry from 13% to something closer to 50% requires bold action, action that dismantles the barriers to women’s participation and fulfilment in engineering – of which ATAR entrances is one.
“My concern is that this will exacerbate the hostility towards women in the toxic masculine cultures that exist in engineering programs – where women’s achievements are often discounted due to their gender. I’d like to know what culture change programs UTS have planned to counteract the inevitable backlash, and to build the inclusion capability of their student engineers so that these women have an equal chance to thrive in engineering.”
Joanne Lackenby PhD BEng(Hons)
OPAL Regulatory and Licensing Officer, ANSTO
“Before I started studying engineering, I was not exposed to many (if any) female engineers (i.e. female role models). I suspect that the number of females entering engineering courses has less to do with ATAR scores and more to do with exposure to role models and engineering in general. That being said, if adjusting ATAR scores attracts more females that successfully finish their degrees and enter the engineering workforce, it will in turn increase the number of role models for future students considering engineering. I look forward to seeing the data on whether adjusting ATAR scores is a successful method of increasing diversity in engineering.”
Jillian Kenny PhD BEng(Hons)
“I do commend UTS on actually doing something tangible in an attempt to increase the number of women entering engineering.
“However, I would question whether entry requirements are actually a significant obstruction to women studying engineering. Is there are large number of women who want to study engineering, but can’t because of the entry requirements? If there is evidence showing this, great, but it’s not something I’m aware of.
“Rather, I would assert that there are other reasons, for instance, the perception about engineering — what engineers do, or that it’s not a female friendly profession — that play a far greater role in the low number of women enrolling in engineering degrees.
“I agree with the premise that this move is unlikely to lower the quality of the graduates. Research shows that the level of maths a student studies in high school has no impact on their results after a couple of years at uni. Further, the quality of an engineer in practise is usually not determined by their grades, either in school or university.
“I do have a concern about unintended consequences this type of initiative could have, particularly about the perception of technical capabilities of female engineers.”
Larissa Fedunik BEng BA(Hons)
PhD Candidate, University of Newcastle
“In my personal experience, I don’t recall a single girl I knew (circa 2009 era) who expressed interest in engineering but lacked the marks to gain entry to the course. In my peer group, and at my single-sex school, there was a distinct lack of information about engineering as a career choice, which probably led to a lack of interest in studying engineering.
“Worrying statistics on women leaving the engineering industry also suggests that a significant cultural shift has to occur in male-dominated engineering workplaces to retain qualified female engineers.
“I have concerns that the low percentages of women in the engineering workforce stems back to not receiving the message at an early age that engineering is a career option for girls, and an unappealing workplace culture that drives women out of the industry. Unfortunately, I don’t think these issues can be addressed by changing university entrance policies.”
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Author: Gemma Chilton
Gemma has a degree in journalism from the University of Technology, Sydney and spent a semester studying environmental journalism in Denmark. She has been writing about science and engineering for over a decade.