Not just a ‘pipeline’ problem

September 13, 2016

The University of Newcastle’s Dr Nikola Bowden addresses misconceptions about the biggest issues for women in STEM.

promoting women

It is well documented that the number of women in STEM at senior levels in Australia are low. This is not a new problem, it has been reported for decades. The only thing we can be certain of is that it is not just a ‘pipeline’ problem anymore.

Women are embarking on careers in STEM at the highest rates ever seen. There is still room for improvement, but the bigger problem is that women leave STEM careers at the formative early to mid-career stage. They never get to senior levels, not because they don’t want to, but largely due to a system where opportunities aren’t  on offer.

“If we do nothing, we will be having this conversation again in another 10 years.”

Despite the assumption that the main problem is women having children, there are much bigger issues in STEM. For example, at a recent meeting of STEM academics, the moderator asked for ideas or insights into what would help women’s careers to progress. The first person to raise their hand was a senior male professor. He announced that flexible work conditions and financial support for housework and childcare are needed to support females in STEM. Perfectly reasonable suggestions many would say, but the unintended consequences of him speaking gets straight to the heart of the issue.

Firstly, he and everyone else in the room thought it was acceptable for him to speak on behalf of entire portion of the STEM workforce that he will never be a part of. Secondly, after he spoke not one female academic offered any of their own suggestions. By speaking first he immediately set the discussion to focus on carer and home responsibilities, reaffirming that women bear the burden of these activities and have no other major issues.

Why do we continue to let this happen? I wonder if he had not spoken first, would we have been given the chance to raise bigger issues women in STEM face?

Recognising and promoting women

After many workshops, symposia, conferences and focus groups for women in STEM the same theme resonates: women in STEM need to be recognised and included.

Women are rarely promoted rapidly up the ranks, do not easily promote themselves and do not feel entitled to recognition – they will not ask to be an author on a paper, to be lead investigator on a large collaboration or to apply for leadership positions. Men find all of this easier to do, therefore women continue to leave STEM careers rather than promote themselves based on ‘merit’ or ‘excellence’.

Should we attempt to change the innate, instinctive behaviours of males and females who happen to work in STEM? Or should we change the structure and systemic biases that funnel men to the top and women out of a career in STEM?

We need to do both to achieve real change.

It is exciting times in STEM in Australia as the Science and Gender Equity (SAGE) pilot aims to do this over the next two years. Organisations such as Women in STEMM Australia, Franklin Women and Male Champions of Change are giving a voice to women.

The time has come for the STEM sector to move on from just acknowledging the problem, to intentionally including women. If we do nothing, we will be having this conversation again in another 10 years.

Dr Nikola Bowden

Research Fellow, School of Medicine and Public Health, University of Newcastle

Read next: Managing Director of the Dow Chemical Company Tony Frencham talks about the changing corporate culture for Women in STEM.

People and careers: Meet women who’ve paved brilliant careers in STEM here, find further success stories here and explore your own career options at

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