Is Australia’s Gender Wage Gap Linked To School Subject Selection?

Women may be underrepresented in high-paying jobs in engineering and information technology because of their choice of subjects studied in high school, according to a new study.

A report from the University of Melbourne, ‘Gendered Selection of STEM Subjects for Matriculation’, has revealed that girls in high school are less likely to choose science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) subjects than boys, despite their capabilities.

Co-author of the report, Dr Susan Mendez from the university’s Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, said that the findings of the study provided a unique insight into why women are underrepresented in engineering and IT.

“We knew that there was a gender disparity,” she told The Huffington Post Australia.

“It was surprising that it starts at an early age. We knew what was going on at university, we see what is going on in the labour market. The idea was to try and trace back a little bit more and start early on.

“We found that girls simply aren’t doing the subjects required to launch a career in the highly paid engineering or IT industries.”

Mendez said that while there is even participation in STEM, there tends to be a marked difference between the kinds of subjects chosen by girls.

“Girls who are good at mathematics favour biology and human development, subjects that can launch a career in allied health,” she said.

“These professions are generally not as well paid as other STEM industries. Many girls who think they are not good enough at mathematics to study in physics and information technology could succeed at these subjects and should be encouraged to try.”

The study found that while women make up the majority of graduates receiving any degree across all STEM fields, they make up only 20-25 percent of graduates in engineering or computer sciences.

“We do see that, for example, there is participation of young women at a university level, but then when we advance in the change we do see female scientists [for example] are underrepresented at a senior level,” Mendez said.

“The lack of role models of successful women in senior positions could be crucial in engaging young girls and to see that it is possible to have a career in these fields.”

Libby Lyons, Director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) believes that industries that are traditionally male-dominated need to do more to attract women into their workforce in order to bridge the gap.

“Gender segregation in industries and occupations is a contributing factor towards Australia’s gender pay gap,” she told HuffPost Australia.

“Some of the employers in these [male-dominated industries] offer better conditions including longer periods of paid parental leave and impressive return to work schemes.

“However, there is more work to do to demonstrate that workplace cultures and work conditions are supportive of women.”

Speaking from personal experience, Mendez highlighted that it was crucial that our society continues in its effort to achieve gender equality, especially in the workplace.

“I’m also in a field that has been mainly male dominated and I do feel that achieving gender equality is still one of the biggest challenges. I think it is critical to find and break down the barriers holding women back,” she said.

Lyons stressed that one of the ways of overcoming these obstacles was for young women to not be deterred by the stereotypes of male-dominated industries.

“I encourage young women — and the parents and teachers who guide them — to look at opportunities beyond traditionally female roles and industries, and take the initiative to join traditionally male roles and industries,” she said.