This TEQtogether Guidance Note provides advice for male university students who wish to help improve the experiences of women studying STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). It was developed by Esther Ross and is based on focus groups of men and women university students (in Austria and the UK), interviews and an analysis of relevant literatures.
Fewer women than men study STEM subjects at university, but the levels of inequality vary in different parts of the world. Such inequalities need to be situated within the wider context of systemic gender inequalities within universities (see McDermott et al., 2018). Such wider inequalities have a knock-on effect on student recruitment and also the experiences of women studying STEM subjects
There are now increasing numbers of “Women in STEM” activities at universities, but male students often don’t feel included because the marketing of these activities often implies that they are exclusively for women. Some men would definitely attend these activities if they were marketed more inclusively. However, many women also enjoy having access to a safe space where they can communicate with fellow women and share similar lived experiences within academic spaces. It is not easy to balance these tensions.
Many STEM academic environments are heavily masculinised, and this is often enhanced through the loaded character of the language used towards women, which is frequently interpreted by them as being dismissive and condescending. Some women, for example, report being called words such as ‘bossy’ when working within group projects when they felt they were being passionate and enthusiastic about the subject matter. The double-edged standard is that men do not use this language towards other male peers; if men also used positive language towards women this would generate a more inclusive and cooperative space in which to study. The gendered nature of student experiences in STEM is also reinforced for women who feel they are unable to communicate and explore emotions within the academic sphere. It is essential to create and thus normalise spaces where male and female colleagues can express and embrace their emotions in the moment they feel them. This is essential for challenging some suppressive and sanitised academic scenarios (including both online meetings on Zoom and in person) and would allow for more open and inclusive spaces for people to be themselves and openly communicate whilst working in STEM.
Some women in STEM also report suffering from imposter syndrome, which is the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills. As one women participant said,
‘It’s like you are always in a job interview and you can’t make any mistakes and it’s not like that when you are with other women’ .
Outreach programmes and in-house training need to be provided to create an inclusive environment for both men and women to work within. While some such initiatives exist at the secondary school level, they need to be continued into higher education as well. Bystander training involving the development of skills to challenge unacceptable behaviours can be useful to help build awareness of issues that require intervention, and also confidence in a person actively to intervene when they see behaviours or practices that are inappropriate or abusive (Veer et al, 2021: 171).
Seven things male university students should DO to support women studying STEM subjects
- Call out men when they make unhelpful comments in tutorials or seminars
- Intervene positively in a meeting if a woman is being talked over or not allowed to speak
- Cite and show visual evidence in workshops or presentations that an author is a woman
- Participate in training provided in universities to challenge sexist behaviour
- Support women students, especially within male-dominated environments
- Share content and software developed by female students and promote their work
- Be more open to sharing their own emotions in academic contexts
Four things male university students should AVOID doing to support women studying STEM subjects
- Be closed to constructive criticism and reject feedback that could be useful for self-growth and development.
- Invalidate women’s contributions within group projects .
- Foster a masculinised space, for example putting up posters in the office which could make women feel uncomfortable or isolated.
- Always assume that men should do the practical parts of STEM; women are also capable of carrying heavier objects/conducting scientific experiments.
This Guidance Note (first version, August 2021) was prepared by Esther Ross and is available for downloading (.pdf format) in ENGLISH here.
Further information and references
- Daloz, L.A.P. Keen, C.H. (1996) ‘Lives of commitment’, Change, 28(3), pp. 10.
- ‘Dunning-Krueger Effect’. Available at:
- Dunning Kruger Effect (no date) (Accessed: 10th May 2021).
- McDermott, M. Gelb, D.J. Wilson, K. Pawloski, M. Burke, J.F. Shelgikar, A.V. London, Z.N. (2018) ‘Sex differences in academic rank and publication rate at top-ranked US neurology programs.’, JAMA Neurology, 75(8), pp. 956-961.
- Mezirow, J. (1997) ‘Transformative learning: Theory to practice.’, New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 1997(74), pp. 5-12.
- The Active Bystander Company (2021) https://www.activebystander.co.uk
- University of Birmingham How to add STEM Careers to University Outreach
- Veer, E. Zahrai, K. Stevens, S. (2021) ‘I stood by: the role of allies in developing an inclusive and supportive academic environment post #MeToo’, Journal of Marketing and Management, 37(1-2), pp. 162-179.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Last updated 27th August 2021