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Getting women into science and engineering

We all know the statistics. Why aren’t our efforts to get more women into science and engineering working?

Last month, the Royal Society of Edinburgh told MPs that women are vastly underrepresented in science and engineering. That’s old news. Anyone who’s ever walked through a science or engineering office will already know. To be fair, the statistics make the anecdote concrete.  The RSE’s were shocking because they focussed on senior levels, including fellows of learned societies where statistics go as low as 1.5%.

The STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) have long yearned to improve gender diversity. Engineering (my discipline) makes many efforts to encourage girls to join the field, especially with luring high school students into university.

But merely focussing on “the need for more women” isn’t very helpful. Many initiatives try to herd women into STEM, however we can. It’s that seemingly laudable but hopelessly simplistic aim that leads to disasters like this European Commission video, featuring high heels, lipstick and cheeky smiles at the camera.

Why won’t they come?
What that video was trying (and failing) to show is that “girliness” isn’t incompatible with science. A (female) professor was profiled in the Institute in 2008 with the same proposition, but for engineering.

In theory, this might be true. In reality, it is only for a minority. More importantly, it misses the point. The need for tokenistic “girliness” (you know, like, make-up) probably isn’t the leading factor preventing girls from entering STEM.

To my knowledge, there is still no non-anecdotal account of what are the leading factors. Still, anecdotes are useful. This article in the Guardian last week gives a more realistic account of physics not being “cool” among girls, with observations such as this one:

…as Sir Peter Knight, president of the Institute of Physics, put it: “The English teacher who looks askance at the girl who takes an interest in physics … can play a part in forming girls’ perception of the subject.”

Perceptions matter, but they don’t come from nowhere. We could do well to ask ourselves whether our culture, perhaps against intention, subtly hints that girls should be elsewhere. If it doesn’t—and if there is just a “geek” perception—that may point to wider pressures against girls being geeks and, in a more regrettable corollary, accepting of boys being geeks.

Irrespective of gender norms, if people think science is only for nerds, that itself is concerning.  One of the girls interviewed in that Guardian article hit it well: “A lot of people think [physics] is theory, theory, theory, and that puts them off. You need to see how it’s applied practically… everything we do: you pick up a book—that’s mechanics … Nuclear fusion could be used potentially as alternative energy.”

What we do, not what we achieve
I go a step further. I think that engineers (not sure about scientists but I suspect likewise) typically frame themselves not in terms of what they do for society, but what they do on a day-to-day basis. Most engineers love being “in the job”, writing code, making prototypes, generating designs. They don’t think, unless prompted, about how they’re helping the world around them.

This contributes to the “geek” perception. STEM subjects clearly help people: everyone takes for granted products that rely on the physical sciences. But that’s not what we think of when we think about scientists and engineers.

How does this link to the gender bias? The assumption I make is that, on average (not universally!), girls tend to care more about the social consequence or meaning of their work, relative to boys. I admit that’s contestable and I leave you to assess how true you think that is. But it explains trends even within science-related subjects. Of students taking A-level biology, 55% are female. In America, 47% of medical students are female (ref). In Australia and New Zealand, it’s 51% (ref). In A-level physics and university engineering, the figure drops to around 20%.

The bias need not manifest in conscious thoughts. Indeed, if it’s a hangover of social pressures (women being more “caring” etc.) it probably wouldn’t. In that case, the gender imbalance is partly hostage to wider norms. Even so, the bias in itself is still concerning. It’s really important to love what you do, but a belief in what it does for others is just as important.

Turning the tide
What scares me the most isn’t equity, but the thought that there’s likely scores of talent that STEM misses out on because girls end up favouring medicine, pharmacy, law or the humanities. I wonder if our woes in attracting people to STEM generally would vanish if girls weren’t so hesitant about taking science-oriented subjects.

It’s a tough cycle to break. The lack of women (understandably) breeds a culture in their absence which, in turn, pushes incoming girls to other fields. It’s hard (and undesirable) to change people already in the field, so it’s easier to focus on recruitment. There’s a fine line, though, between shifting perceptions and selling a lie. The enthusiasm we would need to engender in school students to improve our female intake might amount to a cultural shift in STEM altogether. Not a bad thing, but worth a thought.

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