Published in The Foundation magazine, Qatar Foundation.
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With the demand for STEM jobs growing exponentially and a dwindling number of women employed within its disciplines, organizations around the world are trying to bridge the gender gap, one line of code at a time
In 1903, Marie Curie became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, later becoming the first person and only woman to have won it twice. Only 48 women have won the prestigious award since – a mere 16 of them in the sciences.
With science and technology jobs expanding, there is growing concern about the conspicuous worldwide absence of women in the field. By 2020, there are predicted to be at least 2.6 million vacancies in Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (STEM) in the US alone, with women predicted to fill less than 3 percent. So why aren’t there more women in STEM?
“Maybe they just aren’t interested” is a statement that often gets thrown around in discussions about the gender disparity in STEM. Even if one assumes that girls just aren’t interested in the logical and analytical stimulation that STEM provides, the next question is: why not?
A 2014 report from the US-based Girl Scout Research Institute, titled ‘Generation STEM: What Girls Say about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math‘, affirmed young girls’ interest in the field. The report found that 74 percent of girls and teen girls in the US express interest in STEM in middle school, but by the time they’re in high school, this number falls to 0.04 percent. By the time they’re at university, women represent less than 20 percent of all STEM degrees earned at the undergraduate level. By the time they get to the workforce, this number is halved.
So what happens to young girls between middle school and the time they enter the workforce? The answer is a lot. From an early age, we can observe traditional gender roles reinforced by how each gender interacts with their environment: young girls being given dolls to play with, while young boys being encouraged to play outdoors. The latter example illustrates how boys are often encouraged to explore pursuits that help develop a curiosity about the world around them, a curiosity that can translate directly into an interest in STEM. Not to mention that many young girls can often explicitly told that women can’t be scientists, or fail to see representative role models pushed to the forefront.
The importance of media representation cannot be underplayed, as the scarcity of women in STEM has led to a media portrayal that paints the disciplines as almost exclusively male. Outright sexism in the portrayal of STEM professionals has permeated homogenously throughout various forms of media. One such example is the American cartoon TV series Dexter’s Laboratory, whereupon the titular character builds a secret lab in his bedroom, complete with a female AI assistant. Meanwhile his older sister, Dee Dee, flounces around in pink, while infuriating her younger brother with her stupidity. By giving men a monopoly over the ‘geek’ trope, it can be said that the film and television industry fails to provide positive role models for young girls who have a budding interest in science.
Even if a woman powers through the societal stigma and pursues her passion for science, and lands herself a job, she’s still fighting an uphill battle. Across the United States, women on average earn 17 percent less than equally-qualified male counterparts, a figure that when extrapolated, effectively means that women work for free from late-October until the end of the year. Within STEM, the figure is even higher, as a 2016 study from Ohio State University found that women in STEM careers make 31 percent less than men in their first year after graduation.
Yet some critics may counter these figures by asking what different does it make whether there are women in science or not? Why does it matter whether men do the research or women do?
Historically, men dominating STEM has meant that many discoveries, solutions, and cures are created with the average man in mind, meaning that the issues that women face are often neglected. For example, countless women were misdiagnosed and died of heart disease because their symptoms weren’t the same as men for cardiovascular disease. Side-effects of medication also affect women disproportionately as clinical trials have largely focused on male subjects. For example, the 1982 Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial, one of the first to establish a link between cholesterol and heart disease, involved 12,866 men but no women. Greater representation of female scientists will bring some of the focus onto circumstances which are unique to women, and the creation of more effective medication that has been catered to women.
With so many barriers to entry, the scarcity of women in STEM should come as no surprise. Yet as Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, pointed out: “No country today can afford to leave aside 50 percent of its creative genius, 50 percent of its innovation, 50 percent of its economic drivers.” Thankfully, organizations around the world are now waking up to the socioeconomic benefits of greater employment of women in STEM, and are launching campaigns around the world to make a science education more accessible for women.
Movements such as Girls Who Code and hEr VOLUTION are those trying to change gender stereotypes by combining art, film, music, fashion, and even humanitarian work to show young girls that STEM can help them pursue their passions, and are encouraging them to use their voices in the field of technology for the benefit of all.
In the Middle East, one finds a higher number of women studying STEM than most developed countries. In fact, a 2009 report from the World Bank titled The State & Progress of Women in the Middle East & North Africa found that girls in the MENA region are often more educated and have better grades than their male counterparts, even in STEM.
Some of this success can be attributed to the reach of initiatives such as Nour Atrissi’s Teens Who Code, a Lebanese coding academy. Atrissi believes that the problem lies in school curriculums that don’t give students enough exposure to STEM. She describes Teens Who Code as a way of disrupting the conventional educational system and returning the focus on problem-solving while making learning fun.
Similarly, Carnegie Mellon in Qatar, a Qatar Foundation partner university, and ictQATAR are the organizers of ‘CS4Qatar for Women’, an initiative to encourage female high school students to explore computer science and tries to change social perspectives on computing as a profession by flying in successful women in the field to talk about their experiences in STEM as women.
In an era where stereotypes and gender bias continue to block the progress of women, initiatives such as CS4Qatar Women, Teens Who Code, and hEr VOLUTION are empowering women to challenge a patriarchal system and make room for themselves and young girls who dream of one day entering the world of STEM.