Insight: Dated labour laws deter women from STEM

A recent visit to Korea and networking with women from different backgrounds has led to some dramatic insights for WSP’s Rochelle Kirby, Mechanical Graduate Engineer.

Rochelle, was one of two New Zealanders invited to attend the Young Women Scientist (YWS) Camp in Seoul, Korea, which gathered 28 STEM Representatives from 13 countries including, Australia, Bangladesh, Japan, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Vietnam.

While Rochelle fully expected to come away from Seoul with lasting memories of Korea’s vibrant culture, it was a newfound awareness of the challenges women face in less progressive countries that had the most impact.

“I was amazed that for most of the attendees at the event, dated labour laws require demanding work hours, which -for most women- presents the ultimatum; career or family. For many women who have dedicated their lives to the field of research, the idea of a starting a family is out of the question Inevitably, this creates a damaging cycle and deters our younger, aspiring female scientists, mathematicians and engineers from pursuing a career in STEM,” say’s Rochelle.

Broader workers’ rights should be the first step

According to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) index released last year, New Zealand ranks third in the world for workers’ rights - closing behind Canada (2) and Australia (1). 

Amongst the countries that were represented at the YWS Camp, only Australia and New Zealand made the CFR’s noteworthy spots of the 183 ranked countries. 

Taiwan (43)

Philippines (57)

Mongolia (59)

Vietnam (76)

Japan (89)

Sri Lanka (110)

Malaysia (129)

Nepal (131)

Myanmar (163)

Pakistan (164)



The index goes on to reveal the bleak reality for today’s working woman: 

  • 75 countries do not guarantee mothers an equivalent position after maternity leave.
  • 156 countries do not make childcare payments tax-deductible
  • 54 countries do no provide government-run childcare services
  • 18 countries do not make primary education free and compulsory

Things are looking up

Things are looking up. Governments around the world are beginning to understand and act upon the cost of inequality in the workplace; between 2015 and 2017, over 110 countries and territories carried out more than 180 reforms that improved women’s economic opportunities (CFR, 2019).

Hiring women in STEM – it’s not just appropriate, it’s crucial

A presentation that left a lasting impression on Rochelle, was by Binota Thokchom, guest lecturer from the Indian Institute of Technology.

A proponent of Gender Innovation, Binota went on to explain that having female representatives in her team was no longer just ‘the appropriate thing to do’ but crucial to driving project success through innovation, diversity of thoughts and critical conclusions. 

The term Gender Innovation was coined by Professor Londa Schiebinger of Stanford University to describe the scientific discoveries and employed methods of sex and gender analysis to create new knowledge. The official website showcases several case studies that support and proves the benefits of including women in research.
Young Women Scientist YWS Camp in Seoul Korea 2

How is NZ empowering women in STEM?

Although considered progressive for its working rights, there is still a huge shortfall of STEM careers in New Zealand.  The main factor being the lack of interest from the younger generation.

The movement of women into STEM has accelerated over the past 10 years, encouraged by government and industry initiatives.

The Wonder Project, run by Engineering New Zealand is a free programme for schools – tailored to promote and encourage students to follow a career in STEM.  The initiative introduces students to STEM via a series of hands-on programmes that knits into New Zealand’s national curriculum.

The Wonder Project completed its pilot programme last year and hopes to reach over 200 schools in New Zealand by 2020.

The Pathways In School Initiative has recently begun at WSP Opus and is focused on supporting school students with making serious and educated decisions concerning their future careers. The initiative is focused on diversity, with the aim of reaching schools within a broad range of socioeconomic areas.

WSP Opus has dedicated more than 120 hours of professional support so far this year, and the aim is to roll this initiative out across the country within the coming months. 

The tide is beginning to turn. The number of female engineering students at the University of Auckland has risen from 407 to 900 in the past decade, and the university now boasts the highest participation rates of women in tertiary-level engineering across Australia and New Zealand.

"I am encouraged by the increased participation of women in STEM that I have observed over the last 5 years while at University and during my professional career. In New Zealand, I believe more women are encouraged to pursue STEM than ever before, and there is an awareness that quality comes with diversity. I feel privileged to be working as an engineer at this time and I look forward to seeing the number of women in STEM at all levels increase." Say's Rochelle.

Want to learn more about Rochelle's experience? Connect with her on LinkedIn.