It’s time women are given a hand in STEM

The conversation on UTS's new admissions policy for women needs to be looked at from a different perspective.

UTS building crumbling as a ladder leans against it Art by Nell O'Grady

Patronising. Degrading. A free-pass. When the University of Technology Sydney first announced their decision to allow 10 adjustment points for female students applying for undergraduate degrees in the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology it was met with outrage from the public. “We are not a quota, we are not a numbers boost and we need a culture change, not a hand out,” read a petition calling for the initiative to be removed. More than 1000 people signed within the first two days. In its attempt to encourage more women to enrol in engineering, UTS’s move for equity instead became a bone of contention, accused of perpetuating the narrative of sexism.

With only 27% of the STEM workforce being represented by women, the problematic gender imbalance within STEM has long been subject to critical discourse. According to Engineers Australia,  an average of only 14.1% of engineering graduates are female and despite the number of mentoring programs, scholarships and schemes introduced in the last two decades, progress towards equity remains frustratingly slow. “We need to be disruptive – what we have been doing is not working,” Justine Romanics, National Manager for Professional Diversity and STEM at Engineers Australia, said.

Under UTS’s initiative, domestic female students who have achieved a minimum of 69.00 ATAR points will be eligible to receive 10 adjustment points exclusive to UTS, effectively increasing their selection rank and their chance of acceptance into applicable STEM courses. It has already been approved by the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board and is set to be in effect for high school students applying for 2020 university admission. While it is true that the inherently vested interests of university holds great influence over the implementation of initiatives, the government’s move towards performance-based funding in 2020 suggests it is unlikely that UTS’s proposal is purely a means to boost enrolments for financial gain.

At first glance, UTS’s drastic approach may seem to be wilfully misguided in its headline to lower the entry bar for women despite proponents of the scheme claiming that it will increase opportunity for female enrolment within relevant STEM courses. In an email sent to members of the Faculty of Engineering IT at UTS, the university stated that the number of offers to female students would have increased from 19% to 27% across all Engineering and IT undergraduate degrees based on their 2018 admissions data.

Thus,  adjustment points are legitimised by the assumption that it will increase enrolments and consequently female representation, encouraging cultural and social change. Indeed, the glaring gender gap fosters a culture whereby strength in numbers favours male dominance and sexism is subconsciously entrenched within the mindset of the cohort. A 2016 report by the Office of the Chief Scientist stated that “Australia loses female talent at every stage of the STEM pipeline despite no innate cognitive gender differences”. Instead, engagement, confidence and bias were said to be the issues contributing to the level of achievement and retention of women in STEM.

Sabrina Emanouel, a fifth year Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering student and Team Leader of UTS Motorsports Electric, believes that an increase in female representation within the cohort will empower female voices and reduce stereotypical biases, challenging the power dynamics that exist within toxic masculinity.

“It’s a strange dynamic,” Emanouel who oversees a team of more than 20 students within UTS Motorsports, said. “I’ve got a team of 84% men and some of these guys are older than me, some of them are further into their degree than me and here I am leading the team. Sometimes I have to be firm or assertive and they can take it as aggression or ‘bitch’.”

Although sexism may no longer be blatant, the subconscious entitlement ingrained within the male-dominated sphere continues to haunt women in subtle ways. As the minority, women often feel the pressure to prove that they deserve their place. “There’s almost this bro-culture or man-culture,” said Yatha Jain, 2018 Vice President of Sydney University Women in Engineering. “It’ll sometimes be things like a guy not shaking your hand and shaking everyone else’s hand, or even more subtle than that, when you’re one of only a few women, they don’t talk to you. Things like eye contact, they’ll look at everyone else more than you.”

Admittedly, there is merit in the contention that it is not ATAR requirements alone which curtails female interest in engineering and IT subjects. Indeed, the issue  equally stems from the systemic failure to educate women in STEM within earlier stages of teaching. However, the adjustment points do not seek to eliminate the necessity of strengthening our education system, but rather enhance its effects by enabling more opportunities for women in tertiary education. It is a hard pill to swallow when the educational system must stoop to gender points as a means of increasing female participation but perhaps a reality we currently bear.

Fears that the preferential treatment of women devalues their intellect, subjecting them to further scrutiny and discrimination, reveals society’s willingness to define an individual’s potential by a statistical rank. The notion that a student’s academic success at university can be surmised by a numerical measure perpetuates a detrimental mentality that distorts the importance of ATARs whilst undermining the self-value of students. On the contrary, universities are increasingly looking towards alternative means as a basis of undergraduate admission – only 26% of secondary education students were admitted based on their ATAR in 2016, according to the Mitchell Institute.

Furthermore, accusations that UTS’s adjustment points undermines the validity of a woman’s degree, though well-intentioned, risk legitimising severe misconceptions. It is ridiculous to consider that an individual’s qualification could somehow be undermined by an ‘easier’ admission into their course, disregarding their academic performance subsequent entry entirely. It therefore becomes crucial that the narrative that dominates is one that fosters a network of support; one that focuses on an individual’s achievement, not on what they may have once lacked numerically. Access to professional resources such as first-year buddy support, mentoring programs, and networks to female industry role models are an essential partnership to this scheme.

“Right now what we have to do is take active steps to make sure these women aren’t treated differently next year,” said Emanouel. “Next year is the year that we have to make sure that that fear of being treated differently, of being treated poorly, doesn’t happen.”

UTS will be the first university in Australia to offer adjustment points based solely on gender. A University of Sydney spokesperson told Honi that it had no plans to reduce the ATAR requirement for women in any of its degree options.

“While we applaud any efforts to decrease the gender imbalance in STEM, we are not considering such an approach in any of our degree options at this time.”

While UTS’s initiative is undeniably imperfect and cannot exist as a permanent solution, it holds the potential to enact real change given the right rhetoric. In a system that has long favoured men, it’s time women are given a hand.