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How to overcome barriers in a male-dominated industry

By Jack Campbell | |5 minute read

Women are facing unfair disadvantages in the science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) industries, as recently discussed by HR Leader.

Dr Debbie Devis, research assistant at UniSA’s Education Futures, is working to break down these barriers through education.

“There are multiple barriers that women face. And a lot of them can be invisible because it doesn’t show up very well with data,” said Dr Devis.


“But when you actually talk to women, the things that they say they are experiencing predominantly comes down to this barrier of entering into these hostile cultural environments, where they don’t feel welcome in their workplace, or they are unfairly burdened with certain types of jobs that are based on stereotypes about women.”

“And those kinds of hostile cultures make women want to leave. But it can feel quite hidden when you’re looking at the data because you can’t quantify people’s experiences when it comes to their feelings and how they feel in terms of belonging within the workplace.”

Dr Devis understands the challenges all too well, coming from a STEM background herself — she has a PhD in genetics.

“I’m from a hardcore STEM background, and I left because of this hostility. And all of the advice I was given was just to stick it out. Now at this point, I’m like, don’t bother for another 20 years. But that’s obviously not what I want,” she said.

For young women who may be entering the STEM workforce and are worried about the hostility, Dr Devis said it’s important to always be building connections.

“I think that if I was giving advice to women, knowing that you’re going to be facing those barriers, one of the biggest, most helpful things for me in my career was building a really good support system around me that wasn’t just consisting of other women who very much helped me recognise that this wasn’t my fault,” she explained.

“I wasn’t experiencing things in an isolated way. This was a systemic issue, but also building support systems with men who believed in me. I found that when I was able to build that support system, they advocated for me more. And so, I felt more supported.”

Unconscious bias and stereotypes play key factors in the unfair treatment of women in STEM, noted Dr Devis. Individuals can do their part to be more accommodating by educating themselves on the issues and helping to create an inclusive work environment.

“We bring a lot of those biases and stereotypes from outside of the workplace into the workplace. And that’s a really difficult thing to shift, but it’s also one of the things that really affect the dynamics between men and women in the workplace,” she said.

Dr Devis continued: “We can overcome those biases and stereotypes. And this isn’t just related to gender; this is with everything by having greater exposure to the experiences and stories of other people.”

“It can be really hard to talk about negative experiences, but I think it’s really important because that breaks down those stereotypes and challenges people to recognise their biases.”


Unconscious bias

Unconscious bias refers to discriminating choices made by a person without their knowledge as a result of internalised opinions towards certain individuals or groups of people. This may have a detrimental impact on hiring choices.

Jack Campbell

Jack Campbell

Jack is the editor at HR Leader.