Equalising Participation of Women in STEM: International Case Studies of Successful Strategies

By Anna Kosmynina

Anna attended the 2015 OECD Forum in Paris. 


Despite the advances that women have made in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), participation in Australia remains predominantly male, with only 33% of tertiary STEM qualifications being awarded to women and the qualified STEM workforce only comprising 28% women. Similar patterns of gendered participation are observed internationally, however Australia is below the OECD average. Developing and implementing strategies to increase women’s participation in STEM education and workforces and engages educators, government and industry in its solutions, and leads to increased gender equality and economic benefits. This paper explicitly contributes to the post-2015 OECD outcomes of empowering women and enhancing the capacity to innovate to achieve integrated sustainability.


1.     School-based: use of technology to facilitate gender-sensitive learning and professional development; place emphasis on inquiry-based learning and excursions and other engagement opportunities.

2.     Mentoring and role models: implementation of mentoring programs over a variety of contexts to ensure female STEM role models.

3.     Financial incentives: scholarships and fellowships for female students, grant application funding and success tied to female representation in project

4.     Industry: highlight long-term incentives for businesses to aim for equality, raise awareness of disparity, facilitate flexible work arrangements

5.     Government: prioritise equalising women’s participation in STEM, legislate, institute quotas and targets



STEM fields are critical to maximising Australia’s competitiveness, innovation and creativity, which in turn benefit Australia’s economy. The direct and flow-on contributions of STEM to Australia’s GDP is, at a conservative estimate, $292 billion per year or 22% of GDP.[1] STEM fields account for 760,000 of Australia’s jobs and the productivity of those employees is double that of employees in other fields.[2] Importantly, alignment in gender balance in the workforce relative to the population is likely to lead to research which is better aligned to the needs of the population, and diversity of participation increases the talent pool and therefore increases creativity and decreases bias.[3] Additionally, as the gender wage gap in the STEM workforce is smaller than the average, women’s participation is also relevant to improving pay equity.[4] Increasing access to STEM fields therefore maximises Australia’s innovation and productivity in these fields and strengthens a crucial component of the economy.

However, women are significantly underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in Australia. In 2011, 72% of those who were employed were male, compared to 28% females, among the over-15 years old STEM-qualified population.[5] Comparatively, women make up 55% of those employed Australians who are 15 years or older and have tertiary qualifications.[6] It is important to note that the gender disparity is an international trend. In the United States, the proportion of women in STEM workforces has remained unchanged at 24% between 2000 and 2009.[7] In the European Union, the proportion of female 25-34 year-old science-related tertiary graduates in employment was 35% in OECD countries in 2010.[8]

There are many factors which lead to the current underrepresentation of women, despite there being little difference between men’s and women’s scientific ability.[9] The compounding influences of a lack of role-models, bias and comparatively low expectations, and pressure to fulfil a feminine gender role edges women out of STEM during their education and careers.[10]

The trend of gendered participation, that is, differences in participation between genders, can be traced back through levels of education prior to reaching the workforce. Addressing disparity in pursuing STEM education may therefore be beneficial to increasing women’s participation in STEM in their later years. At a tertiary level, the growing number of female students and graduates has led to an increase in the absolute numbers of female STEM graduates, however men continue to outnumber women in STEM fields.[11] In Australia in 2011, women were awarded 33% of tertiary STEM qualifications, this being only slightly higher than 32% in 2000, and below the OECD average.[12] Engineering has the lowest completion STEM rate at 21% women, while life sciences has the highest at 55%.[13]

Gendered participation is also present in secondary education. In New South Wales, 18.6% of boys continued STEM subjects into their final year, compared to 13.6% of girls.[14] There is greater divergence when the subjects are further divided with girls preferring to choose biology or psychology and lower level maths instead of physics, chemistry or higher maths.[15] Although progress has been made over past decades, when surveyed at 15 years old, 46% of boys indicated that they expected to be in a computer sciences or engineering career by age 30, compared to only 8% of girls indicating the same.[16] This divergence is slightly greater than the OECD average. While education is not the only level at which women are underrepresented in STEM, it is the earliest that is detectable and is indicative of a trend which continues throughout the STEM engagement lifecycle.

Developing and implementing strategies to increase women’s participation in STEM education and workforces therefore addresses an important problem in the Australian context and engages educators, government and industry in its solutions. This paper considers the successful implementation of measures from across the world in an attempt to recommend those suitable to Australia’s context.

School-Based Approaches

As the first formal educative experience, schools play an important role in shaping girls’ experiences of STEM subjects. Experiences of STEM subjects in middle school shapes their selection in upper school, leading to tertiary pathways. Schools influence girls’ choices via the professional development of their teachers and the extent to which the curriculum and pedagogy are gender-sensitive.[17]

Technologies in the classroom have been used successfully in Finland and Israel to assist in combating pedagogical bias. In Finland, a computer program was created to facilitate the creation of a gender sensitive learning environment in primary schools though a web-based STEM learning resource that included a professional development component as a lasting resource for teachers.[18] The program that launched in Israel assisted teachers in improving their utilization of ICT in the STEM classroom.[19]

Some schools have been successful in reforming their pedagogical approaches to place a higher emphasis on inquiry-based science education and problem solving and research and have shifted away from traditional approaches in an attempt to attract more girls.[20] University students were also engaged with similar approaches, and reported that they found the program enjoyable to influential to their career choices.[21] Additionally, as boys and girls exhibit different preferences regarding their preferred style of study in STEM, curricula that emphasise depth of content rather than breadth would be effective in increasing girls’ engagement.[22] Excursions and visits from experts have similarly yielded positive results. In a 2005 study, female students preferred to engage in excursions to museums and industrial settings and with expert visitors, compared to their normal classes.[23]

Mentoring and Role Models

Teachers, role models and other sources of support are influential in cultivating an interest in girls in STEM and their pursuit of a related career. As girls do not differ significantly from boys in their scientific ability, it is largely factors related to confidence and attitude that deter girls from STEM pathways. The support of teachers, mentoring programs and career counselling services decreases negative stereotypes, increases awareness of STEM study and careers and improves self-esteem among girls in STEM.[24]

There are many programs that have been successful in supporting girls’ access to female role models in STEM. French programs have focused on showcasing successful professional women who studied STEM subjects and on targeting female students and encouraging them to pursue specific careers.[25] Israeli students have participated in a program that exposed girls to STEM study and work, and facilitated their excursions to Google offices, R&D laboratories and university settings. Of the girls who participated in the program, 40% chose computer science as their major stream in upper secondary school.[26]

In the European Union, a mentoring network engages with women at different points in their study and careers to mentor them and support them in academia and research, and ultimately their career development.[27] Norwegian doctoral and post-doctoral women receive mentorship from professors with reportedly positive results and Finnish female high school students received mentorship from female tertiary students in electrical engineering, including regular visits to university engineering settings to be exposed to basic electronics. The program was successful for its duration.[28]

Given that STEM study and workplaces are largely perceived to be out of the reach of or irrelevant to women, mentoring programs offer the chance for girls and women to be exposed to the positive experiences of role models and to work collaboratively and be supported in their personal and professional development. As seen in the case of other OECD nations, this can have a significant positive impact on their decision to pursue further study or professional opportunities in STEM.

Financial Incentives

Measures such as scholarship and fellowships specifically targeted at female students and researchers may provide women with financial incentive to pursue STEM study and careers. They have been successful in increasing the proportion of women who progress to professional roles and may broadly include the reservation of funds for women in assist their study and establishment as researchers, or greater competitiveness in funding applications for projects with favourable gender balances.[29] Specifically, Swiss universities are encouraged to appoint female professors by the provision of greater government funding as a reward. Funding applications in Greece receive a 5% boost to their evaluation score per involved female researcher, and similarly, in Spain, applications receive a 5% boost to their score where the project director is a woman or the project has greater than the average number of women.[30] Another examples is the French foundation, the L’Oreal France Foundation, which facilitates competitions among female scientists for funding grants.[31] These measures financially incentivise women to pursue STEM education and careers and incentivise their inclusion by workplaces.


Although STEM workplaces have typically suffered from the perception of being somewhat unwelcoming towards women, there are many effective measures that may be implemented to change this. As industry and employers generally are motivated by profit and financial outcomes, these must be addressed in order to incentivise change.

A successful example of this is a report produced by Engineers Australia that identified potential strategies to increase recruitment and retention of women in engineering.[32] The report highlighted the beneficial outcomes for employers such as increased creativity and productivity, greater retention, a higher standard of recruitment and improved client relations. Specifically, increasing women’s participation increases the talent pool, decreases production bias and allows industry to better account for the needs of female consumers, which make up half of their market share, ensuring continued viability and success.[33] Additionally, it suggested multiple strategies which have undergone successful reviews, including scholarships for female students, exposure to students through industry events at schools and universities, pay equity, mentoring programs, management awareness, flexible work practices and child care facilities. Norway, Finland, Sweden and Slovenia extend the contracted period of employment to take into account parental leave and males are encouraged to make use of the provision as well to equalise the impacts of childrearing between genders. The Athena project in the UK provided women with professional and personal career support and heads of department were briefed on gendered issues, with modifications to departmental cultures being made to ensure better support for work-life balance as a result.[34]

More broadly, raising awareness of the gender disparity in STEM workplaces is important as it allows employers to account for female perspectives and challenges during human resources procedures and allows for greater transparency in funding and promotions. Increasing awareness is particularly important in reducing bias which currently may lead to undervaluing of female employees in funding and promotional assessments, poor hiring practices and negativity between colleagues, leading to a suboptimal work environment.[35]

An increased awareness of possible bias and restructured workplace policies allow therefore allow for greater participation by women, and are most likely to be instituted when the financial gains are clear.


Governments have great potential to influence women’s participation in STEM education and careers outside of education policy. Firstly, governments are able to create a consistent national policy agenda and commit systematically to gender equality in STEM education and careers. A variety of mechanisms may be used, such as increasing understanding of gender issues and political will, legislating, ensuring the involvement of women in senior position and in decision-making bodies, as well as more suitable funding systems and human resources processes. [36] Importantly, this policy agenda must include a clear commitment from policy makers and leaders in STEM fields, as well as a consistent, diverse effort and maintained focus.

Additionally, governments are able to legislate to ensure greater representation of women, including at senior levels in academia and decision-making bodies, and should feature transparent, standardised selection procedures, wide-spread publication of positions and head-hunting of talented women and monitoring of outcomes. Quotas and targets are important governmental tools and are most effective when used together, their implementation at a government level encouraging uptake in the private sector and civil society.[37] They may be set for funding rates, the uptake of maternity leave, and for ensuring a minimum number of women overall; in senior positions or in decision-making positions and are most effective when incentivised and followed-up. Given that targets allow greater institutional flexibility and autonomy, acting institutions prefer them to quotas, especially where political pressure to achieve targets is strong.[38] France has prioritised the encouragement of more women to select STEM fields and has enacted equality legislation of encourage the diversification of women’s professional choices. By contrast, Canada has not engaged with the underrepresentation of women in this sector and women remain particularly underrepresented.[39]

However, targets and quotas may be met with negativity and minimal effectiveness where they are perceived to be discriminatory against men, unsustainably imposed and insensitive to cultural contexts.[40] While there may be challenges associated with implementing these measures, recent case studies of the introduction of structured policies and processes to minimize gender disparities suggests the necessity for these measures, and their capacity to contribute to industrial and social outcomes. Therefore, government policy is most effective where it accounts for existing cultural contexts and the sustainability of entities affected.


As the causes of underrepresentation are diverse and engrained, the literature reveals that no single measure will rectify the problem as a significant and sustainable increase in women’s participation rates necessarily requires a consistent and diverse effort which targets as many causes as possible.

School-based initiatives engage and inspire girls from a young age, and mentoring programs provide access to support and visible role models. Similarly, financial policies such as scholarships or increased grant application competitiveness incentivise women’s participation and inclusion, and reform in industry may be achieved by highlighting profit and competitiveness incentives to restructure workplaces to facilitate greater participation. Importantly, governments may prioritise increasing women’s participation in STEM and are able to legislate and institute relevant quotas and targets to this effect. Importantly, data collection and analysis will allow for the evaluation of the efficacy of initiatives taken.

Given the crucial contribution of STEM fields to Australia’s economy, there is much to be gained by equalising participation and encouraging greater participation from a currently underrepresented portion of the workforce.

Full Footnotes and Bibliography can be found here or by copying the following URL into your browser: http://bit.ly/Anna-Kosmynina