It has been 40 eventful days for the issue of women's representation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) fields.
On May 28, Google released its workforce diversity data. And the fact that it looked disappointing, led to other tech companies going public with their numbers too, which in turn re-opened the discussion on why we have so few women working in "geeky" fields (especially at senior level) and what the industry could actually do about it.
Then, on June 3, the organizers of Chicago Techweek sent out an unfortunate promotional email featuring photos of women in provocative outfits and poses and came under fire for being sexist in a field that is already mired in controversy.
And then came startup competition host YouNoodle's infographic grimly concluding that tech culture can be extremely exclusive to women, what with them being successful in some industries (namely Commerce, Services and Life Science) but not in others (IT and Software).
Nothing new here, you may say, but it makes one wonder: What is really that keeps us away (or plain mediocre) in the fields that are going to see the greatest growth in the years to come? And if it is as powerful and overwhelming as it seems, is it really in our best interest to fight it or had we better get on with the analogue rest of our professional lives?
The Science of Representation
The field of technology gets the lion's share of coverage for its gender gap, but science fields suffer too -- both in the U.S. and in Europe. According to the 6th report by the Science and Technology Committee of the UK Parliament, titled Women in scientific careers:
It is astonishing that despite clear imperatives and multiple initiatives to improve diversity in STEM, women still remain under-represented at senior levels across every discipline. One compelling reason to tackle this problem is that the UK economy needs more STEM workers and we cannot meet the demand without increasing the numbers of women in STEM.
And it goes on, eloquently summarizing the reasons that the gap persists:
[...] it is the result of perceptions and biases combined with the impracticalities of combining a career with family. [...] Emphasis is often placed on inspiring young girls to choose science, which is commendable, but such efforts are wasted if women are subsequently disproportionately disadvantaged in scientific careers compared to men.
[Question to self -and to the Parliament: what would "proportionately disadvantaged" look like and why sound as if something like that would be acceptable?]
In other words: we seem to be afraid to get into science and when we do, we are very likely to leave. Sometimes our reluctance looks like a one-way street, what with well-intentioned family maintaining that we would be better off leaving numbers and tools to our brothers, and university professors getting into class and scorning all female students for being there, since they will eventually quit their careers, in order to have a family, anyway (#true_story).
But is it, well, scientifically sound advice for women to altogether stop looking for other routes?
Yes, We Can
It is relatively easy to answer the first part: as various studies have shown, boys are not genetically better at math or science than girls. It is our social perceptions and stereotypes that keep girls and women following related courses, choosing STEM-related study fields and performing their best at them. According to a 2008 study by Stanford University,
nation-level implicit stereotypes predicted nation-level sex differences in 8th-grade science and mathematics achievement [...], contributing to the persistent gender gap in science engagement.
And, as the New York Times has reported
[...] the gender gap in math, although it historically favors boys, disappears in more gender-equal societies.
The math anxiety of teachers themselves, it seems, plays a role too. As revealed by a Columbia University study on the subject
By the school year's end, the more anxious teachers were about math, the more likely girls (but not boys) were to endorse the commonly held stereotype that "boys are good at math, and girls are good at reading" and the lower these girls' math achievement.
[It is my guess here that things look a bit brighter for women in science (as opposed to technology) fields, because of the "giving" dimension that these have been blessed with. Yes, daughter, you can go into medicine or pharmaceuticals, considering that your primary mission as a woman is to care.]
So, we are good. And, as the numbers show, we sometimes trump expectations and stereotypes and we go into the field we fell in love with, only to be met by a reality that, obviously, does a great job of driving us away.
According to figures by the Anita Borg Institute, females usually flee the STEM professions for reasons that revolve around "working conditions" (no advancement, discrimination at work) or "work-life integration" (too little time with family, conflict with family).
Both of which, frankly, are a bit more difficult to dismiss. Hard Work
Judging from first-person accounts by women working in STEM, it seems that these are great jobs for you if you love being harassed by prejudiced males who, despite their best intentions/proper musings, only look at you like a shoe-shopping missile gone astray, or talked down by macho investors, who have eyes only for their next white, male clone. There are hundreds of these stories posted within or below industry-specific articles in the web, and there's even a telling name ("the Matilda effect") for those days when your colleagues take greater credit for your work (and/or a nice promotion), just because they are men.
Who can judge you, then, if you decide that you can't/won't take it anymore? Or if -- like that tactless professor said, who drove you mad a few years ago and who may have just been onto some cruel truths -- you choose to quit a high-maintenance work culture, in order to devote more time to, well, your family?
Dr. Anastasia Pappa, a UK-based education consultant and physics teacher says:
"The reality of those fields is extremely hard for women -especially mothers. There's too much work, too much competition and no flexibility whatsoever. Miss a few years because of a baby or two and the game is lost.
If you asked me when I was younger and work defined my identity, I would tell you that the industry has to change in order to accommodate me. Now I see things differently; work is not my priority anymore, in the sense that I'm not willing to devote my whole life to it. I still want to fit into my chosen field. But it has to accept my limitations too."
Role (Models) Play
Is honoring your real priorities less important than soldiering through a career that should be within your easy reach, but isn't? Is it a weakness to admit that you don't want to go into STEM because, as Athene Donald, a British physicist and academic, eloquently puts it, "[...] what matters to the individual is not necessarily what the system rewards"? It is not.
However, what this dilemma should lead us to, is not admitting defeat, but taking a close look at the causes and the facts and deciding that it literally pays for each of us to do our part and eventually change the system.
Why? Because in the West, STEM jobs are expected to grow 17%, between 2008 and 2018, compared to just 9.8% for non-STEM ones. Excluding women from these fields hurts both the companies in need of the best talent and society, which depends, for its economic and general expansion, on both halves of the workforce being encouraged and able to drive innovation. And that's where great role models come into play, not to prove that since it can be done you have to do it, but to remind everyone that if you are passionate about what you do, you can find your own little way to change things for the better.
"It's really hard to imagine what you can't see" said Chelsea Clinton, talking in a "Girls in STEM" event, a few days ago.
"In communities that had a higher percentage of women in the labor force who are working in science, technology, engineering and math, [...] girls were as likely as boys to take physics, or even more likely" says University of Texas sociologist Catherine Riegle-Crumb, who recently studied the gender divide in high school physics courses.
Call it mentorship, CSR, career shadowing or however else you like. It means that it's time we celebrate the ones who have made their difficult choices and let them show the way to those who find it hard to believe that they can be the next ones.