“One of the things that I really strongly believe in is that we need to have more girls interested in math, science, and engineering. We’ve got half the population that is way underrepresented in those fields and that means that we’ve got a whole bunch of talent…not being encouraged the way they need to.” - Barack Obama, 2013
The first International Women’s Day in 1911 saw 15,000 women march through the streets of New York City to demand shorter work hours, better pay, and the right to vote. These have, largely, been achieved in the US, although ‘better’ pay has yet to really translate into ‘equal’ pay with men. There is, however, still urgent action needed to accelerate gender parity, and few industries are lagging behind more than STEM.
Christopher Hitchens once said that ’the empowerment of women is the only known cure we know for poverty and deprivation,’ and the benefits shown by the introduction of women to the world of work evidences this. Since 1970, women’s labor has expanded the American economy by $2 trillion dollars, and women are flourishing in industries like law and medicine. However, women still account for only around a quarter of roles in some computer and mathematical occupations according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and make up just a fifth of computer science and engineering majors. In fact, the number of women interested in taking computer science majors was found to have dropped 79% between 2000-2008, and peaked 30 years ago when society was far less dominated by computers.
As part of a drive to correct this situation, the UN declared February 11 as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, with the aim of promoting ‘full and equal access to and participation in science’ for women. The UN noted that, ‘science and gender equality are both vital’ for international development, but, sadly, women and girls are still largely excluded from the scientific arena.
The causes of this are complex. Many still blame misogyny. The idea that women can’t do STEM has largely died out, at least in public. The age of social media has meant that those expressing such views are quickly weeded out and pilloried. The real problem is the idea that women DON’T do STEM. When professors were asked why there was a relative scarcity of female professors in math, science, and engineering, 74.5% said it was because of a lack of interest, while 24.5% blamed discrimination, and 1% said it was down to a lack of ability.
I’ve heard two arguments recently as to why women may feel that they don’t do STEM that at first seem to disagree with one another, but actually both prove a middle ground. In her recent TED talk, Debbie Sterling, an engineer and the founder of GoldieBlox - which makes construction toys targeted at girls - said that she felt women don’t enter her field because retailers only sold toys they felt girls would buy - Barbies and other pink toys. She argued that this was persuading them from a young age that this meant they did not belong in the field, and that her company’s success on KickStarter had proven this wrong. Meanwhile, in another YouTube video on the popular American Enterprise Institute channel, it was argued that women avoided STEM because they have a natural inclination to work with people and living things, and there was nothing preventing women from working in STEM except their own ingrained desire not to.
The two arguments are essentially nature versus nurture, but the two women did not entirely disagree with one another. At the end of Sterling’s video she actually notes herself that engineering leverages ‘not only the math and science that I worked so hard to learn, but also leverages my creativity. And engineering is such a creative thing, and I never knew it.’ She continues that, ’Engineering is for people. We’re designing things for people.’ This essentially seems to back up the idea that women prefer those things in work, but this is not the problem in and of itself. Rather, there is a stereotype out there that STEM subjects are not like this and cannot be like this, which is perhaps a consequence of them having been dominated by men so much at the start. STEM industries do not need campaigns like IBM’s #HackAHairdryer to promote the idea that they can succeed in STEM industries, and the patriarchy doesn’t need to be torn down before more women can start working at Google. Women are put off by the stereotype of the lonely computer scientist working alone in a dark room. It needs to be made clear to young girls that industries like engineering and computer science and maths are in fact creative at their heart, and they are a collaborative effort that involve people.
Women and men are often different in what they want from work, and denying this is not going to solve the problem. There needs to be a change in the industry as a whole to make it more accommodating to the way women work. Which isn’t to say people should start making pink construction toys and telling young women to analyze the tech behind their beauty products. It means creating an environment that includes more human factors. Sarah Brown, a Cambridge University graduate in computer science who worked for over a decade in the computer industry before ‘burning out’, also argues that the working environment in tech is alienating. She said that ’the technology industry is a relentless meat grinder type environment and women tend to identify more with their work than men do, generally so there is always this massive pressure for results without consideration of the human factors, and that's a recipe for burnout.’ Days like the UN’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science are all very well and good, but a deeper culture change is needed if the situation is really going to change.