21/02/2020

Women in STEM – Fighting the Societal Legacy of “Girls” vs “Boys” Careers

 

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Dr. Martha Gavan 

For years women have been underrepresented in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) careers. In particular, women are woefully underrepresented in physics, engineering, maths and technology, tracing all the way back to subject choices in school.

So why are so few girls perusing STEM subjects? I don’t doubt that implicit bias and stereotype threat play a large part in perpetuating the gender bias. A female student taking a physics exam experiences an additional level of stress related to the stereotype that women are not good at physics. A reference to this stereotype, even one as subtle as taking the test in a room of mostly boys, can adversely affect her performance.

However, it should be noted that girls attending single-sex schools are still less likely to pursue maths and physics than boys. Is it the fear of pursing a degree or career that is still so male dominated? Or is there a belief that they are simply not as good at these subjects?

And why should they believe otherwise when historically women’s contributions to STEM have been overshadowed and re-written to exclude them from the spotlight. Not only is this a tragedy for the women that were overlooked, but also for the millions of young girls who were robbed of the chance to be inspired by these female STEM role models.  

In 2016 the critically acclaimed film Hidden Figures told the true story of three female African-American mathematicians who played pivotal roles in NASA during the early years of the US Space Programme. During the press for the film leading actress Taraji P. Henson laments that growing up she didn’t believe pursuing a career in mathematics was an option for her. She claimed “I didn’t even consider maths as a possibility. It was a given that it was a boys subject. I’m so angry that I didn’t have role models like [the women portrayed in the film] because that would have let me know that maths was an option for me!” This is a sentiment that has resonated with women across the world and through generations.

In order to fight the ingrained societal legacy of “girls” vs “boys” subject or career choices it is vital that all students be exposed to STEM role models that they can relate to. That is why I am so proud of the work we do at TechFest, a charity organisation with a mission to promote STEM to young people and the wider community. Through a year-round programme of events we have the opportunity to expose students across every age range to a variety of STEM activities and introduce them to a huge range of inspirational STEM professionals who volunteer their time to mentor, guide and support the students.

Being able to empower the next generation by highlighting the incredible women who are currently contributing to STEM is hugely important in helping to end gender bias. Even at primary school or nursery level, I will all too often see girls shy away from an engineering challenge while the boys don’t hesitate to get stuck in. It seems that despite not having a clear idea what a career in engineering involves, many girls have an ingrained belief that it is not a suitable option for them, without realising they may have all the skills that would make them excel in the field. Interestingly, if I re-package the exact same challenge as a problem-solving activity rather than an engineering challenge, the girls are much more likely to succeed. As such, it is rarely a lack of ability but rather a lack of confidence that stands in the girls way of excelling in these challenges. By highlighting the transferrable skills that provide you with the tools to do well in a chosen field we can remove some of the mystery surrounding career choices.  

In recent years there has been significant progress in demonstrating the importance of women in STEM. However, there is still a long way to go and a lot of work to be done to dispel misconceptions about STEM subjects and help encourage the next generation of STEM leaders.    

 

Writen by Dr. Martha Gavan

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