The challenges women face in pursuing an international STEM education abroad

Every month, Study International invites you to a conversation with an international student, graduate or professor about the beauty, boldness and benefits of studying abroad. 

Today’s episode is about women in STEM (that’s Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) — specifically, the challenges women face in pursuing an international STEM education. Our guest is Shahira Yasmin, a mechanical engineering graduate from Imperial College London and an advanced robotics graduate from Queen Mary University, London. 

Before leaving her home country Malaysia for some of the top universities in the world, she’s never worked with circuits or soldiering. She was in an all-girls school, which was more concerned about funnelling students into home economics lessons. During her undergraduate degree, she had only four female lecturers and 19 female colleagues in a class of around 160 people. Yasmin was often the only woman in the room — an experience filled with its own set of unique challenges, which she overcame and can now offer important insights and advice for anyone seeking to become part of tomorrow’s women in STEM. 

Listen to “Extra Credit” wherever you get your podcasts. The transcript of this podcast is below. It’s not fully edited for grammar or spelling.


Sofiya: Hi and welcome to “Extra Credit” where we share notes on the latest on international higher education. I’m Sofiya.

Thira: And I’m Thira.

Sofiya: Today we’re looking at female students in STEM and the challenges that they face.

Thira: What does it take to survive in a man’s world? According to UNESCO, only 35% of STEM students in higher education worldwide are women. Only one in five women are currently employed in tech. Engineering remains the most male-dominated STEM field with an estimated 40% of women with engineering degrees, who either quit or never entered the profession at all.

Sofiya: So today, we’re asking: what does it take for women to succeed in STEM? We have with us today Shahira Yasmin, a mechanical engineering graduate from Imperial College London, and advanced robotics graduate from Queen Mary University, London. She’s working right now as an intelligent automation consultant for an industry-leading company. Hi Shahira, how are you?

Shahira: Hi, I’m well, thank you. Thanks for having me today.

Sofiya: Thanks for joining us. So your educational journey so far has been centred around science. Did you take to science naturally growing up?

Shahira: I think so. For the most part, I was always curious about how things worked. So I would devour encyclopaedias, and even when it came to secondary school, I really enjoyed the science subjects. I think when it came to Additional Math in Form Five, I was less passionate about it compared to other subjects. So I need a bit more work there. But for the most, yes.

Sofiya: I see. So, did you notice growing up that there was a gender bias in these subjects? 

Shahira: I went to an all-girls school. So I cannot say that I did initially, no. I think I realised that a little bit more when I started applying for university and I made my interest in engineering known. And at that point, I received a lot of pushback from people around me who had simply never seen me going into that field before, despite always being inclined towards science and math. 

Sofiya: So you decided to go into engineering? How did you make your aspirations a reality? 

Shahira: Well, to begin with, it started with applying for different scholarships. I realised that that would be essentially a key to the freedom of choosing what you want to do, I suppose. I think there was a lot of pushback in the beginning, because I think I was expected to go for a medical scholarship. But I wound up choosing one in mechanical engineering instead. 

Thira: And you chose a subject that’s very male-dominated, right? The statistics say that it has among the lowest number of female students. So to put this into perspective, only 14% to 16% of women are mechanical engineers in North America. And the numbers are not very encouraging in the rest of the world. So why Mechanical Engineering, Shahira? 

Shahira: This might sound a little random, but to be honest, I realised it was on the table during the application process, when one of the subjects you could choose to get a scholarship for was mechanical engineering, which prompted me to do more research on what that field entailed, what it looks like. And in my Quick Search, I realised that Tony Stark was essentially in mechanical engineering. From then on, I was just basically like: “Okay, I want to be Tony Stark.” 

Thira: [LAUGHS] That’s wonderful, right? Because I think most of us can attest that Tony Stark, how he’s presented and how he’s marketed is very much catered to boys. And to see that, you know, women, a young lady, encouraged by Tony Stark to pick up mechanical engineering shows that hey, perhaps there’s a demographic missing here when we’re marketing Tony Stark to the world.

Shahira: I think definitely my blind optimism going into engineering helped a lot because I wasn’t aware of stereotypes. And when they were presented to me, I didn’t really care or believe them.

Thira: So Shahira, you went into university fresh-eyed and optimistic. What did you expect going in into Imperial College? It is such a big university, one of the best and top-ranked universities worldwide. So what did you expect going in? And what was the reality like once you arrived at the university? 

Shahira: I think my expectations going in were honestly quite naive. I was just really excited about being able to live in London, becoming my own person. I don’t think I was thinking too deeply about what the actual university experience would be like. And when I did arrive, I suppose I immediately got the impression of being immersed in the role of engineering in a good way. Because in the very first week, they exposed us to some hands-on aspects from things like doing technical drawings to things like learning how to machine parts in the workshop — it was things I had not done before at any point in my educational history and things that just felt cool or interesting for being different. 

Sofiya:Very Tony Stark. 

Thira: Yeah, very Tony Stark. Did you feel daunted in the beginning over the fact that, you know, you did not have the experience coming in doing, you know, drawing machinery and all that? Was there some sort of nervousness behind that? Or was it just like oh, all these things I’ve never tried before, like, you were happy [to try]? 

Shahira: I think I was definitely very excited. I’m not sure I was nervous. I might be misremembering. But I think I just really enjoy being given the chance to try all of these. 

Sofiya: Oh, that’s wonderful. So how many women did you see in your department, where there are many female lecturers? 

Shahira: I think throughout my entire undergraduate at least, I had three to four female lecturers, and about 19 female colleagues in a class of about 160. 

Sofiya: Wow, 19 females. 

Shahira: You would often be the only girl in the room. 

Thira: How did that make you feel in the beginning, at least? Like seeing yourself as the only woman in the room?

Shahira: I’m not sure the implications or impact or anything really affected me, at least in the beginning. It’s not when you start to notice trends anyway. And you’re just excited and for the most, people are welcoming and eager to get on with their own studies and to welcome you into your professional development. 

Sofiya: So did you have any specific memories or experiences that stick out in your mind where you felt you or another woman was being discriminated against? 

Shahira: I think I started noticing it from year two onwards. It’s things like not being taken at your word, even when you know, you have the correct answer and you’re trying to explain it to someone. You know like someone might be asking a question in a lab as you’re working, and you could explain it to them but you’ve noticed that they would only accept it when a male peer echoes the same answer. More concrete examples would be, for example, when I was at a mechatronics lab, and I completed the circuit. I was certain that what I had done was according to the instructions, and correct because I had it checked. But I was in a group with two other guys and one of them just took apart my work without even checking whether the circuit I had assembled would be correct, because he just assumed it would be wrong. 

And sometimes you notice it not just directed towards yourself, but towards other women. For example, we had a TA in a lab who presented in a more feminine way. And bear in mind that every TA there is qualified. They have been screened to help you. They’ve all got the same lab manual. So there’s no reason to actually discriminate against someone. However, there were instances where when I would put my hand up to ask for the TA to come over and either inspect our work or ask her a question, they would tell me to put my hand down because if she comes over to help us, we can’t ask the male TA to come over. And I noticed that this did not happen to another one of our TAs who was presenting in a less stereotypically feminine way, you know, she wasn’t wearing makeup or did not have long hair, for example. 

Thira: It’s very frustrating, right? Not only do you have to deal with the environment itself, but also your appearance. That adds a lot of additional pressure on top of that. So did you ever deal with that personally, where kind of like your gender aside, like your appearances affect how male colleagues or male classmates treat you in your work?

Shahira: I think there’s always that sort of knowledge at the front of your mind that you should appear somewhat blended in, I suppose. But I’m not sure I adhere to that. I very much want to take up space. So whether it’s things like having a pink manicure or wearing skirts, I do that just because I think it’s time for STEM to be associated with femininity, or at least for people to see that you do have women working in STEM. 

Thira: Absolutely. Like there’s no rulebook that says that you cannot operate machinery with like pink manicure, right? 

Sofiya: So what we’ve kind of noticed recently is a move towards setting quotas up to ensure that women are more included within certain projects, certain classroom activities and all that. Did you notice that at your university? I mean, like you were there, what, six years ago now? 

Shahira: As far as I know, that was not the practice that my university. Some of us had approached the senior staff to determine that because, you know, we were told by some people that we might have just been there because of the quota. But it was clarified to us that no, we were there because of our own merit. And the sort of moves that they did put in place, were more things along the lines of subconscious bias training — where you essentially trained staff to identify their own subconscious biases that they might have against or for various demographics, which I think is positive, that could take towards leading bias away. The only closest thing I noticed that came to a quota was there was this effort to promote more women participating in STEM competitions. So essentially, you could participate if your group had at least one woman in it.

Thira: And how did the male students take to this quota and this policy? 

Shahira: It was actually that competition that I think sparked off some of this conversation, because I’m not sure if they felt excluded, or if they sort of took offence to the idea of your group needing to have at least one woman. But it definitely seemed like even that small step had pushback from people who I thought of as open-minded and fair. 

Thira: Do you think that this added extra burden for the female students, where now they have to prove even more that, oh, I’m not here because of a quota, right? Like I’m here, because I am just as capable, if not more than the male students? 

Shahira: I think you would always carry that with you. Maybe not just in STEM, perhaps also in other fields. Obviously, there are going to be environments that are kinder towards eliminating that. 

Thira: Alright. Do you feel like there are certain traits that are stereotypically associated with women that are helpful in STEM and engineering? 

Shahira: I think so. Yes. Before I continue, I would like to just emphasise that I think any trait we talk about, obviously falls within a normal distribution in society. But I mean, if people are going to stereotyped, why not turn it on its head, right? So even things like being too sensitive, that’s essentially compassion or empathy, which can help you identify different problems that exist in society and how to solve them. And that’s usually one of the starting points really, towards innovation and creating new ideas. Also, things like having more diversity in general is especially important in STEM what with like the advent of AI involving so many different aspects of our life, and the need to introduce or regulate that by having more diversity, both in datasets and in the outcomes, and in the people who design them. Because they’ll be taking things like that into account, as well as other stereotypical traits, like let’s say, cooperation. And I often noticed at least that, whenever it came to moderating meetings or working in groups that had other women in it, they’re always so keen to participate, so organised, so on top of things. I really enjoyed working with other women within STEM. I think perhaps it’s because, as you say, they felt the need to sort of prove that they’re there because they deserve to.

Sofiya: So you’ve experienced sort of like two different environments within two different universities, one at Imperial College and the other at Queen Mary. What would you have done differently with your first degree knowing what you do now? 

Shahira: So three things I think. One of which is pertinent to the environment. Firstly, I would have ensured, I suppose a better culture match for university. It’s things I didn’t even really give thought to when I was first starting out with applications. I just thought, oh: top university, my field, where is it based? London, great. But I never realised the importance of looking at that aspect, both as an international student and as a woman. And I think the second thing I would have done is, it’s so important to actively build an at-work and out-of-work support system, you know, through your friends, through keeping in touch with mentors, having collaborators. You don’t really realise the particular importance of this at that stage of your career. But I think it would have helped a lot more using support systems. They were probably available at both universities but I think whether it’s something like mental health or making a stronger network, it matters. And I think the third thing that could probably be generalised to most students is you have to view setbacks as learning experiences, not as failure, and not to allow them to define you, for example.

Thira: Yeah, that’s great. I think you bring up a really important point about the environment. Especially when you’re fresh out of high school, I remember when I was choosing universities, nobody had talked about environment, everyone was always talking about results, which you’ve received are the best. And if you look at, you know, even websites, or like if you even if you go to counselling, education counselling, they will tell you the same thing, right? Most of it is about rankings, like you know, which has the best subject for you for the course that you want to do as your degree. There’s less emphasis on, okay, how does the environment match your learning style, like who you are or your personality? Like a lot of that matters, right? When we talk about women thriving in STEM, we also have to think about enabling conditions that allow them to, you know, to shine and to continue and to want to have that motivation to continue. Because we know that a lot of women actually drop out of STEM, right? They might enter STEM, but along the way, they burn out so quickly. Yeah, because of biases and all that. Do you feel that? You completed your undergraduate degree about like six years ago? So looking back now, do you feel that women are more supportive, within academia in STEM than when you first started out? 

Shahira: I think so. I feel there is a changing tide. Like, for example, when I first started out, I received so much pushback, both, you know, from everyone who knew me, and even just from random strangers, like people just didn’t buy it if I said, I was studying mechanical engineering. And it sort of killed the conversation, because I think there was this disinterest of wanting to know more, maybe because it was backed by I don’t know, doubts or something. But nowadays, you see so many more initiatives to both bring women on board and to promote them. And I think that really helps foster a different feeling in the environment. 

Thira: Oh, absolutely. Like, you don’t want to deal with imposter syndrome. Like, you know, it’s something that’s so difficult that everyone goes through at some point. But for women in STEM, you know, because of the numbers, the statistics that tell us, about how the field is at the moment, but I’m guessing that you have had, you might have had your fair share of feeling that way too, right? Doing a degree in mechanical engineering and then robotics, you know, that’s not easy. Across the field, in engineering, it’s probably one of the toughest fields. We really applaud you for doing that and achieving so much. 

Sofiya: When I think robotics, when I think mechanical engineering, these images evoke masculinity in a way. So it’s great that women are going forward with that. What do you think needs to change now though? I feel like we still have a long way to go. 

Shahira: I think it can go from so many different stages, you know, right from childhood through to when they’re both starting in the workplace and at the higher levels. I mean, things that could be addressed from the school level, for example. Like, in my experience, despite excelling in all my science subjects and in math, I wasn’t seen as an engineer and I hadn’t considered it myself either, and I think that’s important because my school for example, did not offer the subject or doing things like hands-on circuits or soldiering. Maybe because it’s an all-girls school, so we got home economics instead. So perhaps things like from a younger age, maybe secondary level, maybe primary level, just simply having activities which are more hands-on and making them gender neutral, so students from everywhere could try their hand at different things and become more used to the skills involved. Because when it came to, for example, like programming, or, you know, working with hand tools, those were things I largely tried for the first time at university, and I love them so much, I took to them naturally, but I hadn’t even thought I would. It was just this crazy dream of trying out to be Tony Stark and seeing what life in London would look like, that led me to this point today. So that will be one of the things. And I suppose there’s a lot more to be said, for efforts that can be done at the workplace. 

Sofiya: I’m sure Tony Stark would be proud. 

Thira: I’m just curious, because up until this point, we’ve been talking so much about your studies, but now that you’re working, right, what’s your observation, as a woman in STEM in the workplace? Because now it’s it’s different. The culture is slightly different — from academia going to the workplace. From your experience, do you feel as if there’s an under-representation going on? Like, what kind of changes would you like to see in the workplace now that you know, you’re in it?

Shahira: I think, at least from my personal experience, I was quite impressed with how diverse my team is, and how lovely everyone has been. Perhaps someone with a different background might feel differently. I think that might be in part because I moved towards automation consulting, rather than petroleum engineering or staying in mechanical engineering itself. I think most people at heart mean well, and it’s just whether or not we create conditions that foster the growth of women as their career evolves. 

Thira: So Shahira, if it were up to you, if you have the chance to run your own company or your own organisation, what would you do differently to encourage more women to participate and remain in the field? 

Shahira: I’m not sure if what I’m about to offer is a unique perspective necessarily, but I think, for example, hybrid work conditions offer more flexibility, and should definitely be considered where they’re possible. I think also, the practice of reducing the amount of personal information you’re required in an application is important. Things like not asking people to upload their photo, for example. 

Thira: That’s a great one. Because I feel like some companies do, especially more traditional structures, still practice that. And like personal information, especially for women, like your marital status, this whole practice of like, are you married or not? Or do you plan to have children or not, like that affects, your chances of getting employed?

Shahira: Like it’s not the case, at least where I reside right now in the UK. But I think I’ve definitely seen applications like that abroad. 

Sofiya: As a round-up, why is it important to have women in STEM like, why is that so necessary? 

Shahira: Well, if you think of STEM as essentially designing solutions that help our society, having only one gender designing such products may overlook the needs of others. Whether it’s things like medical tools, used in healthcare or you know how car crash testing is done with dummies sized to the average man, resulting in higher statistics of injury to women, for example, during an accident. Or addressing the data bias in AI and how that has already impacted real people in America. And a second point, I think, will be more geared towards young women who are considering a career in STEM but might feel either intimidated or uncertain. I feel even if the road ahead may seem tougher, or may actually be tougher, it’s important to carve out that space for yourself and not lock yourself out of a field that is both lucrative and impactful to our society. 

Thira: I think it’s a very important point that you brought up, representation again. Like I know it sounds like something that is bandied about a lot in the media representation. I mean, it’s important, even yourself having gone through university, seeing other people like you in the same room, right? If you look at statistics of even women who are successful in STEM, it’s only a small concentration of them that are decision-makers. The people who are holding capital like investors, those who are pushing for innovation, tend to be men, right? So if we don’t have women on top or making the decisions, like all these things that you mentioned about products, about innovations that cater to women, they’re not going to come through. And if we don’t have women, it’s just going to get worse from here. 

Shahira: Yeah and I definitely think one of the points you brought up, it reminds me of how at least emancipation is very much dependent on having capital and your finances in order. So that is I think another reason why women should strongly consider the fields that are best rewarded, even if they’re more challenging. Besides, it also impacts society for the better. 

Sofiya: What would your advice be to young women kind of wanting to go in the same direction? 

Shahira: I would reiterate how to make sure your universityor your early starting career a cultural match. You know, don’t underestimate the importance of choosing places that are not just welcoming to diversity, but that foster your growth. And secondly, I think it’s important to, as I said, create an active support network, and really put in that work to seek help when you feel you’re struggling. Because I think everyone will be there at one point, you’d be surprised how many out there would be happy to help you. Finally, I think it’s important to feel comfortable or to grow into being comfortable taking up space. Whether that means speaking up in class to ask questions or in presentations or choosing the subjects that you like without feeling daunted, and presenting yourself authentically as you are with your own identity. I think that matters because you should be seen. If there is any shade of change to be made in this field, we need to see diversity in people. 

Thira: Right, wise words, Shahira. Thank you so much for joining us on today’s podcast. This was an episode for “Extra Credit.”. I am Thira.

Sofiya: I’m Sofiya and we hope you enjoyed this podcast.