On the UTS ATAR discount for women in engineering

In some ways, it’s a predictable script. Whenever a university announces that they will accept a lower admission rank for members of an underrepresented group, there are always these three classes of responses:

  • “This will welcome more members of [group] into [profession].”
  • “It’s not fair that [group] doesn’t have to do as well to get in.”
  • “It’s patronising to members of [group] who have earned their place.”

And normally, if you want to dive deeper into the topic, you should start by asking questions like: What are the factors that cause members of this group to be disadvantaged in attaining the requisite admission rank, and what can we do to alleviate this?

But in the case of female school leavers in New South Wales seeking admission into UTS engineering courses, we should first pause to examine the premise of that question. And it’s not hard to do, because every year, the NSW University Admissions Centre publishes a report on the Higher School Certificate (pdf), which includes section 4.9, “Gender Differences”, page 18:

Moreover, if we want to figure out which row of the above table is relevant, UTS helpfully publishes the most recent year’s ATAR thresholds, so we can just look them up for the engineering courses to find that they range from to 77.55 (data) to 86.1 (biomedical).

The “80” row is probably the closest, then, and it says that in the last five years, between 55 per cent and 59 per cent of students receiving ATARs of 80 or higher were female. That is: the pool of school leavers qualified pre-adjustment to enter UTS engineering courses has more females than males.

Normally when we justify affirmative action of this nature, we point out that the groups in question face disadvantages earlier in their school lives that limit their ability to perform at their potential, and therefore gain high school results at the same level as their not-disadvantaged counterparts. These disadvantages come from many places — historical and current discrimination, lack of resourcing in schools they’re more likely to attend, cultural attitudes towards aptitude in particular subjects, to name a few. But the common thread is that there are good grounds to suspect that their true potential is probably higher than their high school marks would suggest, and the profession would be better off with them added to its diversity.

And, to be fair, there are many grounds to have this suspicion about girls and preparatory subjects for engineering. This isn’t the place to list them all, but from gendered toddler toys to stereotype threat, there are plenty of forces that can cause girls unduly to doubt their ability in maths, science and technology.

It’s just that… in this case, the numbers don’t reflect this. The pool of school leavers qualified pre-adjustment to enter engineering at UTS is majority-female. The barrier therefore isn’t prior academic achievement. When opponents say that “women just aren’t choosing to be engineers”, you might suspect them of making excuses, but they’re also correct.

Why am I spilling ink on this? Let me assure you that it’s most certainly not in opposition to efforts to lift female participation in engineering. In my entire career, I have never heard any engineer oppose such efforts, or even express neutrality or indifference towards them. As far as I can tell, there’s a consensus that the engineering profession needs to do more to attract and retain gender-diverse talent. The intention of UTS’ decision is laudable and hardly unique.

But I’ve often felt like we’re not very good at diagnosing what causes girls not to aim for our field and women not to stay in it. Oftentimes, we don’t even try, and we just do anything that might plausibly get more women into science and engineering. Occasionally, you get disasters like this video that the European Commission made in 2012. The proportion of women in undergraduate classes is an important measure, of course, but when it’s treated as a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

I’m sorry to say that I won’t be able to satisfy you with easy answers here — people write entire books on this topic. But I can suggest a place to start. When doubters point out that the imbalance occurs because female school leavers aren’t choosing to become engineers, we should see that they’re right, and then ask why that’s the case. What makes engineering less appealing than it should be? (As flattering as the idea is, it’s probably not our standards for admission.)

Personally, my pet theory is that engineers traditionally think of themselves not in terms of what they do for society, but their day-to-day technical activities. When you think about professions that “help people”, you probably think of fields like medicine that have more direct contact with people, even though everyone takes for granted the products that engineers worked hard to create and refine. And when you think of engineering, you probably think of activities like writing code, machining prototypes and crunching numbers, even though technical skills underpin almost every profession. Combine that with widespread gender norms of (only) women being “caring”, and, I submit, you get the present imbalance.

You don’t have to believe that, and even if you did, it’s obviously a huge oversimplification — exploring it would require another several posts. But when debate rages about whether UTS’ new policy is a “hand up or a handout”, it’s asking the wrong question. It’s neither, because the numbers say that neither is necessary. Better that we focus our campaign on fighting conceptions of engineering that make our society, and our teenagers, think that it’s not a profession for women.

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