Women in STEM: Bridging the gender gap

25-04-2019

Women in STEM: Bridging the gender gap

MJgraphics / Shutterstock.com

A plethora of studies have indicated that diversity drives innovation and economic performance, so why are the STEM fields, where innovation is the life-blood, so behind on gender diversity? WIPR investigates the reasons behind the failure to attract and retain women, and what needs to be done.

Many readers will remember Clippy, Microsoft Office’s now-defunct paperclip assistant. If Microsoft had listened to the women in its focus group, the paperclip mascot may never have appeared on computer screens.

In the documentary “Code: Debugging the Gender Gap”, Roz Ho, a senior vice president at Ericsson and a former Microsoft executive at Microsoft, claims that feedback from female users on Clippy and other Office assistants was “kind of negative”.

"Women are still finding their feet in Nigeria. After a long day in the lab, you come home and have to fulfil all your domestic duties, including childcare, without complaint." - Amina Ahmed El-Imam, University of Ilorin, Nigeria

Women seemed to think the characters were too male and were leering at them, feedback which was ignored by the designers (of which Ho was the only woman). The women were right: Clippy was widely despised, but it did take 11 years for him to disappear.

However, there are graver issues resting just below Clippy’s surface.

Suw Charman-Anderson, the founder of Ada Lovelace Day (an organisation to increase the profile of women in STEM and create new role models), cautions that a lack of diversity can have “serious repercussions for 50% of the population”. The results of this lack of diversity can sometimes be deadly.

Charman-Anderson cites a headline-hitting book “Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men,” by British journalist Caroline Criado Perez, which outlines the gender data gap and its consequences.

These range from the relatively minor, such as air-conditioning set to a man’s metabolic rate, to the life-threatening, such as crashing a car whose safety tests don’t account for women’s measurements.

Gender diversity in the STEM fields is seriously lacking, with UNESCO statistics reporting that women account for only 28.8% of the world’s researchers.

Between 1901 and 2018, the Nobel Prizes and the Prize in Economic Sciences were awarded 590 times—but only 52 of these laureates were women.

This is despite all indications that diversity should be on the agenda. A homogenous workforce leads to homogenous solutions, and if half of the world’s population isn’t involved in the process, they’re not likely to benefit.

UNESCO-L’Oréal International Fellowship winner and senior research scientist at the Genome Institute of Singapore Li Jingmei says: “While men and women are fundamentally different, science is genderless. Men and women work together for the good of mankind. Science flourishes because of the different approaches that men and women take to solve problems.”

"I have been lucky that I have had some very strong mentors throughout my research career, both men and women. They have been (and are) instrumental in my career progression." - Shari Gallop, University of Waikato

In practice, women are likely to focus on developing different inventions from those of men, says Amina Ahmed El-Imam, a lecturer at the University of Ilorin in Nigeria.

For example, if you can develop storage solutions, you can “reduce the drudgery of kitchen life” in Nigeria, she explains.

But this is all dependent on a STEM pipeline, where leaks spring from the very beginning—at school age—and continue to seep throughout a woman’s career.

Going to the grassroots

Children understand stereotypes from an astonishingly young age.

A literature review published by UK gender equality and women’s rights charity the Fawcett Society, concluded that by the time children reach the end of infant school, they have already developed a clear sense of what is expected of boys and girls, and how they are supposed to behave, and that children’s career aspirations are shaped and restricted by gender stereotyping.

Jingmei warns that the glass ceiling—an invisible barrier that keeps a given demographic from rising beyond a certain level in a hierarchy—is typically formed very early in life.

“Conversations surrounding gender balance at home are usually dominated by parenthood: who wears the pants, who does the washing and cleaning, who stays at home with the kids and so on. We need to be mindful about gender balance at home from the very start, for ourselves, and for our future,” she says.

Gendered toys contribute to stereotypes. Charman-Anderson suggests that many toymakers have attempted to heavily segment the market, preventing hand-me-downs and thereby increasing profits.

Filippo Yacob, founder of UK-headquartered Primo Toys, agrees that there certainly has been a gender bias in toys, along the lines of “blue, cars and action men for boys, and pink, dolls and dollhouses for girls”.

But times are changing. “We’re definitely seeing an increasing number of enlightened startups championing a gender-inclusive, ‘let toys be toys’ approach to product design,” Yacob says.

In 2012, Primo Toy’s coding toy Cubetto began life as a car, but the team realised immediately that the prototype might be seen as a boy’s toy. Instead, they chose a plain cube, with the addition of a smile and eyes for character, with the aim of creating something gender-inclusive.

“Toys play a vital role. If children associate STEM learning with play and toys when they’re young, they’re more likely to find these subjects engaging, fun, and exciting as they grow older,” he says.

Kerrine Bryan, the founder of independent children’s publishing house Butterfly Books, is also trying to challenge gender stereotypes.

With books such as “My Mummy Is A Scientist”, Butterfly Books is seeking to “instil in children a belief that they can be anything they want to be, irrespective of sex, race and social background, if they work hard enough to make these dreams come true”.

Many of the commentators espouse the benefits of role models but, in the STEM field, there is a lack of them.

"We’re definitely seeing an increasing number of enlightened startups championing a gender-inclusive, ‘let toys be toys’ approach to product design." - Filippo Yacob, Primo Toys

Girls in the UK represent 48% of the total STEM entries at GCSE (age 16) and continue to outperform boys in the majority of subjects, according to statistics from the WISE (Women into Science and Engineering) Campaign, which encourages women and girls into STEM.

Fast-forward to university and the number of female students graduating in core STEM subjects has increased year on year from 8% to 9%, meaning that female students made up 26% of STEM graduates last year.

“You can’t be what you can’t see,” says Claire Thompson, former deputy chief scientist for The Royal Pharmaceutical Society in the UK and founder of consultancy Agility Health Tech.

Bryan, who works as an electrical engineer, agrees: “If youngsters don’t see people who look
like them doing a certain job, they are less likely to go for it. That might seem like a crude simplification of a larger problem, but it’s certainly a contributing factor to the engineering sector’s diversity issue.”

Currently, there are more than 900,000 women in core STEM occupations in the UK, but the year-on-year increase dropped below 5% for the first time in eight years in 2018.

Only 40% of the 53 STEM companies in the FTSE 100 have met the target of 33% women on their boards. While it’s a sizeable increase over the 26% of STEM companies who had managed it last year, only 9% of the women on FTSE 100 STEM boards are in executive positions, which again raises the issue of role models.

A dirty word

Entry into a STEM field is just one chapter in the story—retaining women in the industry is a completely different matter.

There’s no simple answer to why women leave STEM, warns Shari Gallop, senior lecturer at the University of Waikato, New Zealand.

“It’s a complex issue and sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint exactly the reasons even for individuals because it’s not always a ‘big event’ that causes this. It can sometimes be from the slow additions of many seemingly small events,” she says.

"For too long, motherhood has been a choice that professional women make to the detriment of their careers." - Kerrine Bryan, Butterfly Books

Many of the women interviewed for this piece suggested they had experienced some uncomfortable situations throughout the careers, from being told they ‘looked sexy in overalls’ by a mentor to being asked to serve refreshments by a junior colleague, despite being the one of the most senior people in the room.

A “boy’s club” culture was brought up by some. El-Imam says: “Men have more informal opportunities to lobby and show their competence among peers while women don’t have as much opportunity to do so.

Since women are not very visible, they might not even be remembered for appointments into positions they are competent for.”

Gallop is a founding member of Women in Coastal Geoscience & Engineering (WICGE), a global network which collected data from 2016 to evaluate gender representation in the industry.

The results were not surprising. Women represent 30% of the CGE workforce and, while female representation on societies’ steering committees represented this average, the proportion of women varied from 6% to 55% between the committees.

Female representation on CGE editorial boards and conference organising committees was below the 30% mark, with women representing 30% or more on only four of the 25 journals focused on.

The survey also looked at perceptions and experiences of gender representation. Gallop adds: “We found that exclusion from field/boat work was a big issue, and during such work, harassment and microaggressions were a common theme.”

Despite these issues, all interviewees were positive about the work they were doing in their fields, with some noting that they had received valuable mentoring and support from men.

“I have been lucky that I have had some very strong mentors throughout my research career, both men and women. They have been (and are) instrumental in my career progression,” says Gallop.

Recruitment is the first challenge companies and institutions face. Charman-Anderson believes that companies need to consider the way they recruit and whether this is excluding women.

“It may not be a conscious decision, but if a website’s iconography is male-centric and features male-centric language in the job advert, you’re less likely to recruit a woman,” she explains.

"Inclusion and diversity quite often become a box-ticking exercise. We need to be looking beyond those boxes, at the processes and policies we can change to make the workplace better." - Suw Charman-Anderson, Ada Lovelace Day

Scientists at the University of Waterloo, Duke University and Princeton University found that job ads in male-dominated fields tended to use masculine-coded words such as “competitive” and “dominate” much more than job ads in female-dominated fields, and these wording differences affected the job’s appeal.

The pipeline continues to leak post-recruitment, particularly during motherhood.

“For too long, motherhood has been a choice that professional women make to the detriment of their careers,” warns Bryan, adding that until parental leave is seen as of equal importance and a job that requires the presence of both mother and father, no progress will be made.

This sentiment is echoed by others and El-Imam tells a similar story. In Nigeria, women have three months of maternity leave; for men, paternity leave is still a “mirage”, which heightens the difficulty.

“Women are still finding their feet in Nigeria. After a long day in the lab, you come home and have to fulfil all your domestic duties, including childcare, without complaint. You have no energy left to apply for grants, so we’re facing these invisible barriers,” she says. 

To break down these barriers, particularly when women return to work after having a child, other policies such as flexible working (which can benefit men too) need to be introduced.

"Science flourishes because of the different approaches that men and women take to solve problems." - Li Jingmei, Genome Institute of Singapore

“Policies like this really change how women perceive their value in the workplace. If employers don’t make changes to help you, it suggests that you’re not valued. It costs $20,000 to $30,000 to replace a staff member, along with a loss of institutional knowledge. Wouldn’t it be much cheaper to have a flexible work-from-home policy?” asks Charman-Anderson.

Outside company policies, Thompson calls for more female-friendly investors. She suggests that investors are likely to invest in people who are similar, and since many investors are white and male, this presents yet another barrier for women.

Funding plays a role in other forms. According to El-Imam, there’s a severe infrastructural deficit in Nigeria and Africa generally.

In many cases, universities lack the instruments and equipment required to undertake experiments. This pushes collaborations with other institutions, which can have unintended consequences on women.

“Women are not as mobile as men because of safety issues. If we can’t travel, we can’t conduct experiments. If we can’t conduct experiments, we don’t get grants or papers,” she alleges. This, in turn, may have the knock-on effect of lessening a woman’s chances of acknowledgment.

El-Imam adds: “If there is more credit awarded to women and more women are invited as guest speakers, then you have something to look forward to in your job. It means you’re not confined to the rear end of lab, while an equally competent man becomes the face of the profession.”

Quotas and other types of interventions can be a “dirty word” for both men and women, says Charman-Anderson.

She adds: “You have to look at the starting point of men and women when considering the nature of the pool of female talent. If your base assumption is women are unqualified, then quotas can only be bad.

“But if your base assumption is that women are talented, then quotas are merely making sure that women get an opportunity that men automatically get.”

El-Imam recommends that the Nigerian government sets a benchmark of women in every stratum of STEM, and begins to encourage the active recruitment of women into every level, including managerial positions.

“Inclusion and diversity quite often become a box-ticking exercise. We need to be looking beyond those boxes, at the processes and policies we can change to make the workplace better,” advises Charman-Anderson.

STEM, gender diversity, innovation, Microsoft, Ericsson, Ada Lovelace Day, UNESCO, Nobel Prize, stereotypes, equality, barrier, female role models

WIPR