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Why Women are vital to STEM

Lego Botany talk - STEM

Women are vital to Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM) for one very outstanding reason, beyond intelligence, capacity or ability –  Women provide a different perspective and voice.

That is a weird statement to make, really obvious, and even potentially condescending. However, given that STEM is dominated by the male perspective and voice, women can and do get shut out. In more ways than the obvious.

I saw this when I attended a Lecture just before Xmas given by Intelligence2 – BRIAN COX AND ALICE ROBERTS ON THE INCREDIBLE UNLIKELINESS OF HUMAN EXISTENCE – Both brilliant minded scientists in their own fields, and yet Brian pretty much dominated the conversation. There was no condescension, and a great deal of respect. There was some back and forth, but Brian definitely opined more than Alice. It was an oddness watching Alice (to my perspective) “look for verification” to talk on about subjects. A few times Brian cut over Alice, and she let him ramble on. It was a good and very enjoyable talk, but it was very much “The Brian Cox Show”, which did mean it was a touch unbalanced.

In audience questions, Brian was directly asked a “trap” question –  “If you had to work in an all-male team, or an all female one, which would you choose and why?”  – and I felt that he handled it rather well. Avoiding the obvious sexism trap, he chattered around it for about a minute, before boiling his answer down to “We need woman in science, because wasting 50% of the brains on the planet is criminal!”

What does this mean?

This means to my mind that we have a “two-fold” issue in STEM:

  1. We have a lack of “push” towards “tech” (Duplo/Lego), “logic/puzzles” and “building stuff” (Mechano/just breaking things and putting them back together) at the primary level. These are seen more and more as “boys toys” as the segregation/”pinkificaiton” of toys is way more prevalent now than it was when I was a child in the 70’s

    Depending on their own childhood, parents can follow their own “stereotype education”. Steering little Johnny at the “Constructing Things” and little Susie at the “Dolls and Pretties”.

I feel that this lack of push for girls towards logic and tech ultimately becomes a lack of taking up options in STEM subjects. Girl not wanting to pursue STEM subjects leads to less women in STEM careers.  Some girls may even potentially see STEM as “Too Manly” for them to want to get involved!

  1. The “standardised” socialisation of boys and girls (which I never had, thank you again Mum!) will cause issues way beyond learning STEM subjects.

    Girls are socialised (in various degrees) to “talk the step back”, “not talk over people”, “be selfless”, “empathise” and even in some cases, “wait for men to talk first.”

    When we then find our way to STEM, we have to then “unlearn” that set of behaviours. Stepping into the STEM world usually demands a “more masculine” communication approach. This is a “double edged sword” of expectations.

    Behaviours that men see in other men as “forward thinking”, “takes charge”,”gets the job done” are seen in woman as “bitchy”, “abrasive”, “aggressive”. Also, these behaviours are the ones that managers generally seek in the people they want to promote.  This leads to fewer women being promoted if male managers are not aware of their internal bias.

These attitudes are counter-productive, as it causes the loss of female perspective. Both on the micro level of day-to-day interaction, and on the macro. Many highly qualified STEM women are now seeking jobs in alternate industries due to this “Old Boy’s Club” gender bias. The double edged sword defeats all of us, regardless of gender.

What can we do about it?

In plain terms, women tend to think around problems in differing ways to men.

Most of the big scientific discoveries are made by pure fluke and happy accident, through

  • “unguided” research (following a research path just for the heck of it, “playing around” with ideas) or
  • by looking at problems from a different perspective,
  • by looking at problems from a different research discipline.

Because of this, the need for differing perspective means that the female perspective is needed now, more than ever before! For instance, some of the most exciting research happening now is in multi-disciple / Cross-Discipline facilities. The Crick Institute in King’s Cross is being built on this principle of “Mix it up”, and they are active promoters of female brain talent.

With the world now having massive focus on STEM, and women finally gaining “equal recognition” of our brain power, we all need to work toward removing the gender bias in STEM.  For my part, I have a niece that I can encourage into STEM. I also have 4 pseudo-nephews that I will encouraging to give the girls space and encouragement!

I’ve also  joined “Inspiring the Future” – to help encourage girls at Secondary level to get into STEM. What will you do?

Catch you next week!

Image used, Visitor Services Specialist by USFWMidWest
Used Under Creative commons licence: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)