There are all sorts of explanations for Australia’s alarmingly wide gender pay gap, which the Bureau of Statistics recently put at around 18 per cent. Active sexism is certainly one of them, along with unconscious biases which are prominent in many work places.
But another part of the story comes down to crude, simple capitalism. Education, healthcare and social work may be priceless parts of our community but that doesn’t mean that they equate to high salaries. Social workers tend to scrape by with under $60,000 a year, registered nurses with around $30 an hour. Australia’s engineers and IT consultants, on the other hand, average around $80,000 per year, and plenty of tradies pull in $50 an hour.
While women represent around half of all science students at Australia’s universities – a category which includes more ‘human’ sciences like medicine and psychology – they constitute less than 15 per cent of the classroom when the subject is computer science, engineering or maths.
Is it really so counter-intuitive to say that, generally, women prefer people to ‘things’? To say that, by and large, most females are more likely to want a job that involves interacting with humans to one that involves fixing switchboards or coding stuff on a screen?
The Psychological Bulletin says it’s simply a fact. ‘Lack of interest in the STEM (science, technology, engineering or mathematics) fields, or finding other fields to be more interesting, is the top reason given for women switching out of the STEM majors and jobs,’ according to a recent study in that journal. Its authors concluded that, while ‘sex differences are small to non-existent on most psychological variables,’ ‘vocational interests seem to be an exception’ to that rule. When it comes to the historic worldwide ‘gender disparity in the STEM fields,’ nature may well be ‘a critical factor’.
Females make up over 70 per cent of the education and training sector and almost 80 per cent of all health and social workers, yet they represent less than 20 per cent of the mining and construction industries, under a quarter of the manufacturing and transport sectors, and a tiny fraction of folks in IT.
There isn’t anything wrong with boys wanting to work with cars or girls choosing a profession where they get to engage with people, but it is worth noting that there are tremendous career opportunities and generous wages in some STEM-related jobs. Figures released in The Good Careers Guide early this year showed that students with STEM qualifications tend to earn around $10,000 more than their non-STEM counterparts, and that’s just when it comes to their starting salaries. The gap may widen still.
As Dr Paul Willis from RiAus put it at the launch of this year’s The Good Careers Guide, “we’re asking the next generation to achieve goals that we can’t even describe yet and get them to take on careers in industries that do not exist today. The best we can do for them today is give them the best tool kit with which to tackle the future. The best tool kit is a sound education in the STEM subjects.”
So why is it that girls are less STEM inclined than their male counterparts? To what extent is this the result of ‘nurture’ – the result of society expecting females to like, want or do certain ‘female’ things which ultimately lead them down a path to more ‘female’ careers?
The latest salvo in the perennial ‘nature vs nurture’ debate is No Gender December. This grassroots campaign is encouraging parents to avoid buying gender-marketed gifts this year. The movement correlates with the perception that STEM are fields dominated by men and avoided by women, and just as toy stores typically separate ‘girls’ from ‘boys’ toys, workplaces tend to be sharply divided between ‘pink’ and ‘blue’ jobs. That means that the best present for your daughter this Christmas may not necessarily be a nerf gun, but rather a “Jewelbot,” a “Roominate set” or “Goldieblox”. There’s an exciting new wave of “STEM” toys specifically marketed as gender-neutral to encourage more girls to explore their interest and develop fundamental skills in STEM. It might not be a quick fix but getting behind No Gender December is a good start to redressing this imbalance.
Chris Lester is Good Education Media’s Chief Executive Officer and brings to the sector more than two decades of experience in strategic management, business development and financial services. Learn more about Chris.