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Women STEM students up to twice as likely as non-STEM students to have experienced sexism

  • 16 January 2024
  • By Emily MacLeod and Louise Archer

We know that women students and staff remain underrepresented in Higher Education STEM disciplines. Even in subjects where equivalent numbers of men and women participate, however, many women are still disadvantaged by everyday sexism.

Our recent research found that women who study STEM subjects at undergraduate level in England were up to twice as likely as non-STEM students to have experienced sexism. The main perpetrators of this sexism were not university staff, however, but were men STEM degree students.  

This research stems from the third phase of the ASPIRES project, based at UCL, which has tracked the career aspirations and plans of a cohort of young people in England from age 10/11 to age 21/22; with a focus on what shapes young people’s trajectories into, through and out of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

We know from existing research that women on STEM degree courses can experience regular sexism, but less is known about the sources and types of this sexism. Our survey of over 3,000 university students in England shows that women STEM undergraduates reported more sexism than those studying non-STEM fields. These experiences of sexism were heightened on some courses, with 50% of women studying physics and 30% of women studying engineering reporting that they had experienced sexism on their degree course.

These analyses are supported by our qualitative interviews with young people tracked since age 10/11 and now studying STEM subjects at university, who reported that the sexism they had experienced most often came from their male peers rather than university staff. Such experiences included sexist microaggressions and stereotyping; such as questioning women’s academic legitimacy, and ignoring and/or patronising them.

As Mienie (a woman chemistry degree student) explained: “In labs, when I’m partnered up with a male lab partner, I feel like they sometimes don’t take you that seriously”. Likewise, Hannah (a woman physics degree student) told us: “Sometimes I’ll say something and [men students] don’t listen properly. It’s really frustrating. It’s not a super-diverse course, it’s mainly white men. And if I say something, they just assume that it’s wrong”. 

Experiences of sexism in the workforce are associated with women leaving STEM. For this reason, there are many benefits to challenging sexism and promoting inclusion in STEM; including improving recruitment and retention of the workforce; more collaborative, creative and effective learning environments; and safer, happier staff and students.

So, what can be done to tackle this apparently wide-spread peer sexism on STEM degree courses? First, using data from our longitudinal study the ASPIRES research team recommend that education policymakers and leaders consider how they can support and encourage HE practitioners to understand, recognise and address sexist language and behaviours among students, particularly in areas such as engineering and physics. On a student-level, the team have created a set of resources to support and challenge people to be an anti-sexism ally. These ‘Step Up!’ posters and leaflets are being sent to university STEM departments across the country.

To request hard copies of these ‘Step-Up!’ resources please contact the ASPIRES research team on [email protected].

1 comment

  1. Albert Wright says:

    It is useful for self identifing men to be reminded of the continuous lack of gender equality in the STEM sector and the world of commerce in general.

    The resources available are good and I hope they will be used widely.

    With regard to the findings of your research, I am in no way surprised that the numeric number of women being adversely involved in the STEM sector compared to non STEM sectors is higher and that even when the absolute numbers by gender are almost equal, women in the STEM sector still find themselves more frequently “diminished” by men than women in other sectors.

    Might part of the explanation be because women are in the minority in the sector and in most circumstances in life, majorities tend to discriminate against minorities simply because they can.

    It is certainly not right or fair, even if it is a common tradition for it to be so, and has been the situation for centuries and decades.

    I wonder what the position is for sectors such as primary school teaching and nursing where there have been substantially more women than men for many decades?

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