STEMing tokenism

Garnet Chan considers problems with the corporate world’s increasing interest in STEM students.

Lauded for their methodical and analytical approach, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) students are ‘unicorns’ in the typically commerce-saturated recruitment pools for your typical professional service firm. But while STEM students will be crucial in accelerating Australia’s economic and scientific progress, the corporate rush to recruit STEM students more often than not rewards those who are best at playing the game. This phenomenon undermines claims to, and the benefits of diversity, while also leaving behind students who have not been given sufficient cultural and technical assistance.

Curriculum is not the only point of difference between the siloed faculties at USyd. As a computer science and arts student, I accidentally fell into a more professionally driven crowd of friends, populated by commerce and law degrees. Their ambitions only seemed to intensify as my degree wore on and attention turned to the workplace. Penultimate year is a critical juncture; an internship in this year can effectively secure a graduate role. In the ensuing rat race, I toyed with time through last-minute submissions and repetitive cover letters, feeling every bit the imposter in my bid to become a corporate sell-out.

Unless, as a STEM student, you are exposed to corporate culture from the start of your university career by joining a professional society, playing catch-up with commerce and business students is inevitable. Often, STEM technical specialties provide little to compensate for ignorance of corporate etiquette and politics. This was especially true for me by the time penultimate year came around, where those in my recruitment pool had two or three more years of corporate experience than I did. Without friends in industry, I would have walked into interviews with no idea how to write a non-generic cover letter.

Now, of course, one might retort that all prospective applicants should be driven enough to learn what is necessary if they want to work in such a demanding industry.

But herein lies the rub.

I would never have even considered a career in professional services if social pressure and corporate marketing for ‘workplace diversity’ weren’t so powerful. But, more importantly, knowledge of the moves that are “necessary in the first place” is often limited to insiders. There have been many instances where STEM students have been turned away at final interview stages due to their ‘lack of business acumen’. But even in roles that appear to require nothing more than STEM skill sets, there is also a need to be technically prepared, for example by learning financial valuations if one wants to go into investment banking. There are countless other unspoken ‘need to knows’—not least with respect to dress and mannerisms.

And so, even though corporations allege they are ‘passionate in their desire to recruit STEM students, it’s precisely these students from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds who are excluded by unstated expectations.

One big reason for this is a lack of clarity on the part of corporates about the roles they want STEM students to occupy. The internet has catalysed a transition into what some are calling the ‘fourth industrial revolution’, creating large ‘back-end’ divisions where the technical skills of STEM students, particularly those in software development and systems, are rightfully needed. So when corporations cast their nets into the graduate sea, corporations need to be clear on whether they want STEM students to undertake this behind-the-scene work, or engage in client-facing roles, or something else entirely.

Through discussions with peers it has become clear that even where STEM students are offered client-facing roles, this is an extended courtesy more than anything.

Many remark that STEM students don’t offer anything significantly different than their peers in these roles, suggesting in some cases that STEM subjects do not adequately prepare students for this line of work. There is also a risk of pulling technically-skilled individuals away from industries or positions that desperately need their expertise. Far more people, for instance, can engage in client-facing roles than can code a website.

But beyond this, this narrative also has the potential to tell STEM students that they are nothing more than their methodical approach to problem solving, a view that can quickly become problematic when it engages a variety of harmful stereotypes. Given the deterministic nature of the work they engage with, it’s easy to see how STEM students could be constrained by the technicalities of their field. But perhaps the only reason STEM students as a sample size seem to possess less of the skills required to face clients than their competition is because students with those skills are discouraged from applying when they think corporates only want STEM students for their reasoning skills. And equally, perhaps STEM students could prove their ability in these areas on the job, disproving the reputation assigned to them by their degree choice.

While the attempt to dilute the insular image of corporations should be acknowledged, reducing STEM students to tickboxes for the sake of diversity does nothing to help them. A great deal more transparency in corporate expectations will be needed if firms want to improve accessibility for prospective applicants, while more inclusive cultures and support networks will be needed to utilise STEM students’ skill sets and, in the process, detokenise STEM students.