Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Changing the Debate about Women in STEM: Celebrating our Equal Abilities!

The following is a guest post by Greet Brosens, cross-posted from the Sagent Solutions Blog

Greet has worked in the recruitment industry for the last 18 years. Recently, Greet founded Sagent Solutions, an organization which promotes women in engineering and attracts women to a field where they are dramatically underrepresented. Whilst companies are sincere in their efforts to increase the numbers, Greet believes that more can be done to change the perception of female engineers, and to give them the right support networks to succeed.

After guest tweeting for The Women’s Room last week, I had enough inspiration for another blog about stereotypes. The stereotypical treatment of girls and women is a subject I have written about a lot in the last year and done a lot of research on. Unfortunately the more I read the more I despair.

The issues are deep rooted. There seems to be a small, well connected, minority of people who firmly believe that there are no innate differences between men and women. Most of these people do acknowledge that through education and culture, men and women make different choices, and that we have to find a way to move away from choices driven by stereotype.

It continues to amaze me however, that this still appears to be a minority view. Even amongst female engineers, who presumably know a thing or two about the effects of stereotypical thinking, it still seems to be an accepted view that men and women are different.

I can quote many examples of encounters I have had with men and women discussing this very topic. As soon as people ask me: “So what do you do for a living?” and I answer: “Well, I help companies attract and retain more female engineers”, the floodgates of opinion open.

I recently found myself at a Christmas party talking to a well educated ex-banker. When I mentioned what I do, his spontaneous response was: “yes, but you will never be able to change the numbers, because men and women are different.” He was extremely well informed and aware of all the research using brain scan technology to explain the innate differences in brain function between men and women, which he shared with me at length before moving on to the real life example of his stay-at-home wife who was much better with the kids.

But even amongst my female friends, most of them working women with kids, I often overhear comments such as: “no matter how hard I try, she will only wear pink. I guess it is just in her!” or “yes they are boisterous, oh well, boys will be boys!”

Now I don’t mind people disagreeing with me, and I don’t expect everyone to hold the same opinion, but it does worry me that so many people seem to accept the science behind male and female innate differences. The impact of this generally accepted belief is huge. It impacts how parents and teachers interact with children (there is indeed a whole body of work on how to raise boys versus girls, a lot of it used in education), it impacts how men and women are treated at work, and most importantly it impacts the choices that people make. It limits us in our choices.

Our choices are not purely driven by our interests. They are a consequence of our environment, our culture and the interactions with people around us. When women choose to stay at home, that can sometimes be their real interest, but very often a consequence of their culture and environment, including their partner. When women choose to study arts instead of science, I believe that in many cases that is also a consequence of their environment rather than a reflection of their ability and interest. If not, why would the statistics not be the same globally? Why do less girls in the UK than in other European countries study physics? And even within the UK, why do more girls from single sex schools study physics than from state schools? These stats don’t make sense if we believe that men and women are innately different.

So if we agree that men and women continue to perform differently and make different choices because too many people who influence these choices believe that these differences are innate, let’s look at the cause for that.

The public debate, at least the one that most people follow, still focuses too much on the differences between men and women. Only recently did all the major papers pick up on the latest brain scan research that proves that men and women are innately different. Sloppy reporting, to say the least, because a closer look at the research makes it clear that absolutely nothing has been proven. Yet the papers all pick it up, and leave it to the guest science commentators buried in the middle pages to refute those headlines.

Why is this acceptable? I have come up with a simple tool to identify whether something is sexist (i.e. highlights unproven differences in ability between the sexes). If you replace the word woman by black and the word man by white, would the statement still be acceptable?

An example: we use that headline from the Independent in December: “The hardwired difference between male and female brains could explain why men are better at map reading and replace that with: “The hardwired difference between white people’s and black people’s brains could explain why white people are better at map reading.

Now would any respectable newspaper dare and print such a headline? It would probably make most of us cringe just reading this! Yet we find it completely acceptable to say and print these statements about men and women.

And it is not just men. There are lots of examples of high profile women who unwittingly contribute to the generally held belief of innate differences when they try and sell the benefits of senior women in the workplace. Too often do we hear the argument that women contribute unique skills to the workplace because they have greater listening skills, greater empathy etc. Did anyone in the civil rights movement use this line of argument?

Some might say my comparison is a bit flippant. But is it? The socio-economic circumstances aren’t all that different. In the US, many more men of African-American origin are unemployed, in low paid jobs, in prison or victims of drug abuse. Is anyone doing research to investigate whether this is cultural or innate? NO! We all understand and accept the difficulties that people in the African-American community face, and understand they are a consequence of environment and culture.

So where do we go from here. Very simply, I believe that we will not achieve greater equality in STEM as long as we continue to accept the public debate.

We do not accept school teachers who share racist views; we should equally not accept school teachers who believe that boys and girls are innately different. Educating our educators should be a mandatory part of their curriculum, and the curriculum of our children. We should have a debate on nature versus nurture with our children and educators, and explain where we are with our science. Government has a duty to ensure that the debate is more balanced, that scientists with different opinions get a greater voice, and to educate our teachers.

I also believe that large corporations who have a strong interest to hire more engineers and other STEM professionals can contribute to the debate. Many of these organisations have done a great job developing female role models and making sure the media and the public are aware of these role models. They can go further; they can use some of their PR budgets to help influence the public debate on brain research. There are a lot of excellent neuroscientists who can contribute a lot on the debate about innate versus learned differences. These scientists and science commentators can be given a much louder voice, and industry has the power to make this happen.

So here is my appeal: let’s change the public debate and opinion about innate differences between men and women. Let’s celebrate our similarities, and our equal ability. In the run up to International Women’s Day on March 6th, who will help shape the debate?

I wish to thank Mona Nasser proofreading this post and sharing her thoughts. Mona rightly pointed out that the source of the wrong point of view regarding male and female differences roots in a lack of critical and scientific approach in shaping people’s beliefs, opinions and actions, leading to prejudice. If we accept that the science is sloppy and inaccurate at best, we can leave those differences behind and celebrate our similarities!

You can contact Greet at Sagent Solutions and follow her on twitter.