Data Corner #2: Gender representation in engineering, 2014 vs 2018

Data Corner #2: Gender representation in engineering, 2014 vs 2018

Previously on Data Corner, we examined the male-to-female ratio of all university staff and students in 2014 and 2018. From undergraduates through to mid-career academics at Level C, we found that women comprised between 40% to 60% of people at each level for both years.

Since we consider 40% to 60% an acceptable range for men’s or women’s representation, this paints a mostly rosy picture of gender distribution in Australian higher education. But if you’ve ever been to a physics or nursing class, you would know that the gender composition of academic staff and students varies wildly by discipline.

In this post, we’ll discuss a classic example of a discipline with a very pronounced and persistent gender skew: engineering. Of all the disciplines we studied,[1] the largest male/female gender gap was observed here.

Line chart comparing the percentage of male and female staff and students in engineering, by level, in 2014 and 2018.
Figure 1. Comparison of the gender distribution of Australian university staff and students in engineering in 2014 and 2018. Source data: Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) Higher Education Statistics.

Let’s take a look at the scissor graph in Figure 1. The first thing we notice is that the overwhelming majority of engineering staff and students are male. This is true at every level: the proportion of men never drops below 75%. We also see that the relative proportions of men and women at each level are quite similar in 2014 and 2018. It’s only at Level B that we observe any significant increase in the proportion of women.

The lack of female students in engineering is particularly striking because when it comes to university student enrolments and completions, women outnumber men in almost every other discipline.[2] Generally, the proportion of women in a discipline starts to fall below 40% after Level B or C, which suggests that there are challenges in career progression or workplace culture that disproportionately affect women. In other words, most disciplines struggle to retain women long enough for them to fill senior academic positions.

That’s not to say that such challenges don’t exist in engineering. Rather, the data indicate that there are bigger barriers to attracting women to study engineering in the first place.

Picture of woman inserting cable into machine.

According to the 2019–20 Youth in STEM Research data, compared to girls between the ages of 12 and 13, a smaller proportion of girls aged 14 to 17 declared interest and confidence in engineering as a subject.[3] Curiously, this was not the case for other STEM subjects, where similar levels of interest and confidence were reported by older and younger girls. In both age groups, boys were more likely than girls to say they were interested in engineering, and to feel that they would perform well in those subjects.

It’s also noteworthy that in the 12 to 13 age group, nearly equal proportions of girls and boys aspired to become engineers (14% and 15% respectively). In the 14 to 17 age group however, a gender gap emerges: only 7% of girls indicated they would pursue an engineering career, compared to 20% of boys. For women aged 18 to 21, that figure is even lower – merely 5% stated they would like a career as an engineer. It’s hardly surprising, then, that less than 20% of engineering undergraduates in 2014 and 2018 were women.

These findings suggest that efforts to draw more women into engineering should target early or pre-secondary students and aim to develop and maintain girls’ interest in engineering throughout high school. Many universities do have school outreach programs to encourage girls to consider further study and careers in engineering. The University of Technology Sydney, for example, runs a suite of programs for primary and high school students as part of their Women in Engineering and IT initiative.[4] Likewise, the University of Western Australia delivers the Girls in Engineering outreach program, where current UWA students and industry partners visit Years 7 to 12 students in schools and guide them through exciting engineering challenges.

For those wishing to improve their engineering outreach programs, researchers from Monash University offer the following advice:

  • Long-term interventions (at least 12 weeks) are necessary to achieve sustained change. For this reason, the UTS engagement programs are designed to be multi-touchpoint instead of one-off events.
  • Measure long-term impact by collecting longitudinal data. We need to know if the students who participate in these programs go on to study engineering when they’re older and if not, why not?
  • Emphasise the importance of non-academic qualities such as interpersonal skills and empathy to becoming a successful engineer.
  • Focus explicitly on engineering instead of science and maths in general. Choose activities or examples that have high personal relevance and social appeal. The University of Queensland’s Women in Engineering program includes workshops that showcase engineering as a way to help people and solve real-world problems. Participating students get to build prosthetic limbs, design affordable flood-proof housing and improve healthcare access for remote communities.

Notes and references

[1] To gauge the differences in gender composition between academic disciplines, we created separate scissor graphs (like the one in Figure 1) for ten Academic Organisational Unit Groups, as defined by DESE, namely: 1) Natural and Physical Sciences, 2) Information Technology, 3) Engineering and Related Technologies, 4) Architecture and Building, 5) Agriculture, Environmental and Related Studies, 6) Health, 7) Education, 8) Management and Commerce, 9) Society and Culture and 10) Creative Arts.

It’s important to note that Academic Organisational Unit Groups are fairly broad categories; for example, Natural and Physical Sciences encompass mathematical sciences, physics and astronomy, chemical sciences, earth sciences, biological sciences and other natural and physical sciences. Thus, there are likely to be variations in the gender composition between the sub-disciplines in each Group as well.

[2] Department of Education, Skills and Employment, Higher Education Data Cube (uCube).

[3] See also: Department of Industry, Innovation and Science (2020) Youth in STEM Research 2019–20: Summary of Results.

[4] Hear more about the design and strategy of the UTS Women in Engineering and IT programme in our webinar Engaging Students as Partners in Gender Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.

Data Corner #1: Comparing gender representation in universities between 2014 and 2018

Has women’s representation in higher education improved over the course of the SAGE pilot? It’s still early days, but data from the Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) show promising signs of progress.

Scissor graph of male and female representation for university students and academic staff.
Figure 1. Changes in gender distribution of Australian university staff and students between 2014 and 2018 across all Fields of Education (for students) and Academic Organisational Units (for staff). Source data: Higher Education Statistics, Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE).


From the scissor graph (Figure 1), we can see that the gender ratios of students and Level A academic staff didn’t change much between 2014 and 2018. At Level B and above, however, there were visible increases in women’s representation. The greatest increase was observed amongst academic staff above Level C. There is, however, still a long way to go to achieve equitable representation at senior levels.

We calculated the 5-year change to the gender gap at each level using this formula:

Equation for gap change

If the gap change has a positive value, it means the gender gap is widening. Conversely, a gap change with a negative value signifies that the gender gap is closing. The heat map in Figure 2 illustrates the changes in the size of the gender gap at each level between 2014 and 2018. Do note that the gap change value does not, by itself, indicate whether the gap favours men or women.

Heat map showing gender gap changes for university students and academic staff by level.
Figure 2. Gender gap changes across academic levels. Source data: Higher Education Statistics, Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE).


When all disciplines are considered, women make up the majority of undergraduate and postgraduate students, and Level A and B academics. This trend is reversed at Level C and above. However, if we consider gender balance to be 40% women, 40% men, 20% people of any gender, the gender distribution at Level C still falls within the acceptable range; gender inequity is only apparent above Level C (i.e. at Levels D and E). Applying a 40:40:20 approach is inclusive of those identifying outside of the gender binary, which is a key principle of the Athena SWAN Charter. Compared to a 50:50 approach, it also better accommodates minor fluctuations and is more realistic when working with small numbers.

These changes in gender representation suggest good news for the sector, but there are limits to what this data can tell us. Academic staff numbers at Level D and above are only provided as an aggregate in this data set, so it’s unclear what the gender distribution looks like at each individual level. While we suspect that the number of women decreases as level increases, disaggregated data is essential to verify this and herein lies an important attribute of the Athena SWAN approach.

Furthermore, the DESE data appears to exclude research-only staff.[1] We know from SAGE Athena SWAN Bronze Award applications that women are generally underrepresented amongst research-only staff and overrepresented in teaching-only staff. This will likely mean that women’s representation is inflated in this data set. And, of course, this data set only captures binary gender data.[2] We suspect that disaggregation by all genders would not change the overall picture substantially, but nonetheless, it’s important to acknowledge the limitation.

Are some disciplines making more progress towards gender equity than others? In the next Data Corner, we’ll take a closer look at how the gender gap has changed in the Engineering disciplines.

[1] DESE Staff Time Series | Definitions and Notes: Data Notes

[2] The data notes for the student data state that “Students who have requested their gender to be recorded as neither male nor female are counted as female.” We could find no indication that this is different for the staff data.

Pursuing Gender Equity in UK Atomic Energy Authority

Representatives from the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) spoke with SAGE about their gender equity work. UKAEA is an executive non-departmental public body based at Culham Science Centre in Oxfordshire. Their fusion research centre is known as the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE). UKAEA achieved an Athena SWAN Bronze Institutional Award in 2015.

Dr Brian Lloyd, Jackie Costello and Dr Joanne Flanagan are members of the UKAEA Athena SWAN Self-Assessment Team (SAT). The SAT leads gender equity data collection, analysis, consultation and action planning. It also coordinates the Athena SWAN Award submission.

The speakers discuss how their data analysis revealed specific opportunities for addressing gender equity in their physics and engineering workforce. They relate their experiences developing an Athena SWAN submission as a publicly funded research agency. They outline key strategies for action planning and for winning institutional support. They also highlight the role of qualitative data collection in addressing issues of flexible work and parental leave.

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