What do you think of when someone says “scientist”? I asked this question in a lot of schools last year, and usually got “he wears a lab coat”, “he has crazy hair”, “he wears glasses” and other similar responses.
Now for me, this is a problem. As a tall, non-spectacled and long, straight haired female…I don’t really fulfil any of those stereotypical descriptions. In fact most children I saw decided that I didn’t look like a scientist – especially when standing next to a male colleague. As someone with a BSc in Nanotechnology and Chemistry, and two postgraduate degrees in Science Communication – I find this troubling. And, research indicates that these gender-in-science stereotypes persist worldwide.
I recently came across an article on HuffPost Tech, about what it means to be a woman in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). A quote from fifteen-year-old Maria caught my eye. She said:
“I believe women in STEM aren’t any different than men in STEM ‒ there are just less of them, most likely due to difference in societal expectations.”
STEM has always been seen as a bit of a boys club. And I’m going to draw on some statistics to back that statement up (I know, boo, but hear me out).
If you look at the proportion of women and men who’ve won Nobel prizes across all fields, women lose out. Only 5.6% of Nobel prizes have been awarded to women – and of those, less than half to women were in STEM fields.
In 1970, only 7% of people employed in STEM fields in the USA were women. By 2011, that figure had climbed to 26% (US Census, 2011). To break that down a little further, in 2011 women were 13 percent of engineers, 27 percent of computer professionals, 41 percent of life and physical scientists, 47 percent of mathematical workers, and 61 percent of social scientists.
Statistician Berry Vetter claims that 14% of year 9 boys and 10.5% or year 9 girls will have taken enough maths to pursue a STEM career. Of these, about 50% of the men and 20% of the women will major in science in college. Of these, 30% of men and 45% of women will complete their degrees in science. Five of these men and one of these women will go on to obtain their PhD. This is sometimes known as the “leaky pipeline” metaphor.
Now I know this all sounds doom-and-gloom-y, but there is some good news.
We know that pop culture is where we commonly see stereotypes, and that, is a reason more women scientists should be featured in leading roles. And the upside is that there is a trend of more “cool” female scientists in mainstream media. From movie characters like Jane Foster in Thor and Dr Ryan Stone in Gravity, to the variety of female characters we see on TV shows; characters in Orphan Black and The Big Bang Theory to name a few, women in STEM are being seen more and more. By increasing the number and diversity of female leaders and role models on screen, the media can affect the ambitions and aspirations of girls and young women worldwide. To quote Geena Davis: “If she can see it, she can be it.”
In 2015, the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) launched a pilot of the Athena SWAN Charter — Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE). SAGE will assess and accredit the gender equity policies and practices in Australian science organisations. The idea is that this will drive changes that will increase the number of women in senior roles and the number of women with STEM skills in the broader workforce.
To shift the perception of women in STEM, we need to move beyond heralding single examples of eminent female scientists such as Marie Curie or Dr Fiona Wood. We even need to move beyond creating lists of accomplished female scientists, and instead, directly integrate those examples into the world around us. This can include art exhibitions like the “League of Remarkable Women in Australian Science” exhibition and lectures held at the ANU last year, the blog, “Women in Science Australia”, the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-Sky Astrophysics’ Gender Action Committee (chaired by ANU’s Vice Chancellor, Professor Brian Schmidt), as well as mentoring programs at the University level, such as ANU’s GETSet program for year eleven and twelve students.
We need to show more women in STEM rather than just talk about them. The more women involved in STEM, at all levels, the weaker the stereotypes become – a study from the University of California, Berkeley indicates that student’s ideas about who can be scientists change when they can see and compare both female and male scientists in the real world.
“Women don’t need to be told that “science is for girls too” – they need to be shown that science is for everyone, not just the boys club of old.”
To close, I think I’ll turn to the words of Minal, age fifteen, from the same HuffPost Tech article I referenced earlier:
“The women in STEM have embraced their dreams and proven to society that women are just as capable in the fields of science, math, technology, and engineering. My perception of them is that they are brilliant people who have taken this step not just to benefit them but also to help other young girls like me who would hope to in the future be a part of one of these fields.”