I am counting down the days until I leave for a LEARNZ field trip to Antarctica. The planning and preparation for the journey has been intense: everything from completing a medical to creating a website for students to follow the adventure.
A few days ago I met two members from the science team that we will follow while down on the ice. Inga Smith and Greg Leonard made time to chat about the work they will be doing from a field camp on the sea ice, 15 kilometres away from New Zealand’s Scott Base.
Inga is a physicist and interested in the interactions between the ocean, ice shelves and sea ice, but she is also passionate about equality in education. Our conversation quickly changed from: why the melting of ice shelves can lead to more sea ice over winter in parts of Antarctica to how can we encourage more women to study physics?
Inga produced some sobering statistics about the lack of women studying STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects at university and when I did my own research I have to admit I was startled by the results:
- Women in New Zealand make up less than a quarter of those studying for a Bachelor of Science in Engineering and just over a third of those studying for a Bachelor of Science in Information Technology.
- There are approximately 31,000 architects, engineers and related professionals employed in New Zealand. Of these, only 13.2 per cent are female.
- There are approximately 22,000 physical science and engineering technicians employed in New Zealand, 16.1 per cent of whom are female.
- The current level of female representation in engineering is low compared to other professions, such as accountancy, law and medicine.
While considering these figures we need to remember that women represent 51 per cent of the population and 47 per cent of the workforce.
These numbers are particularly concerning when we take into account the fact that girls perform as well as boys in Year 13 mathematics with calculus, physics, and chemistry. So why are more female students choosing to study biology-based subjects rather than physics, IT and engineering compared to boys?