There has been a long time quiet acceptance that, at some point during their education, a large percentage of young girls diverge away from the STEM fields and invest in other humanitarian and arts subjects. Although there is no longer so much of the open sexism that predetermines this departure, several reasons have been touted as to why so many young women don’t pursue STEM.
These range from a lack of confidence in our abilities, despite evidence to the contrary, to a longstanding cultural divide that means many girls feel they are entering a ‘man’s field’ before they even start. To join STEM sets us apart from other women and makes us feel somehow undesirable. By the time we are old enough to feel comfortable in individuality, too many of us have already invested our efforts in what we perceive as socially acceptable subjects and don’t ever reverse that decision. Therefore, according to the Women in Science and Engineering (Wise) campaign’s latest analysis of UK labour market statistics, women currently make up just 12.8% of the Stem workforce. It doesn’t take a maths degree to feel disappointed in that percentage.
However, although it is always beneficial to spend time questioning why the divide exists and lamenting statistics, perhaps it is more helpful to look at what the positives are. After all, the more articles and journals constantly focus on the obvious segregation of women, the more attention is taken away from those already changing the tide.
For generations, the model used in biomedical research to design drugs and products for everyone was predicated on the physiology of an average-size male, historically the standard reference figure in Gray's Anatomy, the medical textbook first published in the 1850s.
This gender preference also extended to the rats (and other animals) used in scientific experiments.
Many researchers simply assumed that males could be used to reliably predict effects in both men and women. As a result, says Teresa K. Woodruff, director of the Women's Health Research Institute at Northwestern University ‘...sex, the biggest variable, has never been systematically evaluated and reported in the same way as variables like time, temperature, and dose, even in diseases that are female dominated.’
However, this long-standing procedural bias is now being corrected - with perhaps alarming results. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the primary U.S. agency responsible for health-related research, announced in May 2014 that the research it funds would be required to start testing all theories in female lab animals and female tissues and cells as well as males. This led to a remarkable discovery: a study by McGill University found that rats and mice being tested for pain response apparently were afraid of male researchers and the way men smelled to them. The rodents were so stressed by this male scent (even extending female researchers wearing shirts the men had slept in) that they became desensitized to pain, thus throwing off the test results.
Not only has this been a revelation moving forward, but it raised questions about many previous studies in which lab animals were handled by purely male researchers. In this case, it wasn't the sex of the lab rats, but of their handlers, that made a difference — another variable that simply hadn't occurred before to anyone. Now this has been established, a female presence has become not only increasingly accepted in laboratories but is deemed absolutely essential for effective research.
Londa Schiebinger is a leader in the Gendered Innovations movement, an international collaborative made up of natural scientists, engineers, and gender experts. Its goal is to ‘harness the creative power of sex and gender analysis to discover new things.’
Their website features a couple of dozen case studies that, among other things, examine how taking gender into account in research can make a difference in areas such as stem cell work, technologies to assist the elderly, and better diagnosis and treatment of osteoporosis in men, ‘a huge population’ Schiebinger says is being overlooked.
In science, the stereotypical image of geniuses making discoveries while working solo has given way to a more collaborative model, in which research is done by teams. Increasingly, these teams are made up of scientists from different fields - not only improving the field for women, but for those from all different social and cultural backgrounds.
This has a great knock-on effect for everyone. What we think of as ‘science problems’ affect everyone — children, women, and men. What science decides to solve and for whom things are designed, have a lot to do with who's making the scientific inquiry. More women are therefore always needed in research to increase the range of inventions and breakthroughs that come from looking at problems differently than their male counterparts typically have done.
Changing the Landscape
It’s a culturally and psychologically accepted idea (though not a rule of thumb) that women tend to exhibit more ‘communal’ qualities such as fostering good relations to build community and create an inclusive environment. Men, on the other hand, tend to exhibit more ‘agency’ qualities, including leadership and making things happen.
Having a different range of emotional skills can yield immensely positive results in scientific research. It’s undeniable that the more women get involved in the sciences — or any field historically dominated by men — the general knowledge in that field tends to expand. Different approaches to collaboration and inclusion also mean more opportunities for inspiring others to join the fields.
Women in STEM also have a particular mental resilience that perhaps doesn’t belong to their male counterparts that can prove effective in pushing through new ideas. This article, by Cassandra Lee Yieng, points out that ‘...our attitude towards these challenges, real or perceived, either make us or break us.’ Therefore the ones who make it through the opposing tide are some of the best out there.