Monday, December 19, 2016

Taking Action on the Gender Bias in STEM

Malaysia Primary School Girls
Today’s guest blogger, Anne Virkki, works as a postdoctoral research scientist in the planetary radar group of the Arecibo Observatory. She is originally from Finland, received her PhD from the University of Helsinki, and soon after defending escaped the dark and cold weather to the heat of Puerto Rico.

In the last AAS Division for Planetary Science meeting in October I joined the Women in Planetary Science lunch and discussion event. We discussed the small number of women in many of the spacecraft science teams as well as editorial boards of scientific journals and even smaller numbers of women from the different ethnic minorities. I find the event useful but felt that the discussion never got into the very core of the problem or practical actions on how to tackle it.

What we did discuss was the unconscious bias, but mainly on the level of employers choosing the future employees and how to make everyone included at the work places.  

However, a gender bias exists in the lives of many of us from a much earlier stage; it is a legacy carried by parents and teachers to children in societies where conservatism lives strong. The elders conserve the gender roles they learned from their own elders as values they either consciously or unconsciously pass on to their children: Girls should be seen but not heard, boys are better in mathematics and technology than girls, girls should learn to knit and cook and clean while boys should learn handiness like fixing the car or other “traditional forms” of engineering. For many families these stereotypes are fortunately history but for many others they are very present up to this day, and will affect the career choice of the children. 


According to a recent study published in Psychological Bulletin, the most powerful reason for girls to not choose a career in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is because they feel that they don’t belong in the “masculine culture”. This is evidently a self-feeding problem: if women don’t go for STEM careers because they don’t feel like they belong, the culture will not be any less masculine in the future.

I have also encountered liberal parents and news stories (e.g., by the Forbes magazine), which argue that even if girls are given equal opportunity to choose between STEM or the social sciences and education, they more often choose the latter. If they go for sciences, it will be more likely biology or medicine than physics or engineering. The reason for this is argued to be the natural differences of the genders, which do undeniably exist. And if it’s a free choice, it should be respected.

So the relevant questions concerning the number of women in physics, engineering, and astronomy are: 
1) What percentage of people choosing a career in these areas would be women if everyone were given a free choice and the pressure of not belonging did not exist? 
2) If that percentage is not fulfilled, why is that? What is the effect of the unconscious bias or that of the culture?
3) What can we do to encourage girls with doubts to see STEM careers as viable options for them as well?

For the question number 1, I can imagine the discussion to continue as long as there are people participating. Finding an unbiased answer would be a small miracle. The reason why I listed the question is to remind that the correct percentage is not necessarily 50 %. The question number 2 is already the main branch of the current discussion on the topic this far. The question number 3 is from my point of view the most important one as only practical actions will be the ones to make the change, so from here on I will concentrate on discussing the last question.

The best action that I can see to happen is women in STEM fields stepping up in front of girls and young women to share their story. Women in STEM will be the most powerful proof to show that yes, there are women in STEM, and yes, if you want to participate in solving the problems of the world by conducting a career in STEM, you will belong and have support of other women on the field. Men in STEM can do the same presentation but will have to prove the presence of women in STEM in other ways.

I do not want to make this post a political one, but based on the results of the presidential election, there is no doubt that the culture between conservatism and liberalism will not be turning any more liberal from top down in the near future of the USA, or the culture between masculinity and femininity more feminine without an unlikely mass movement by the people. If you want the culture to change, don’t expect others to change it for you.

Here’s what you can do in practice (apart from donating money):
1) If you’re in a STEM field: contact local schools for an opportunity to go tell who you are, what you are doing, what practical use does it have (“scientific curiosity” may not be the most appealing reason for the audience), and reminding that there are both men and women in the field. If going alone seems too big of a threshold, even better if you take a (female) friend with you.
2) If you’re a teacher: invite women in STEM fields to give these talks. Encourage curiosity and critical thinking.
3) If you’re a parent: aim to remind your children of equal opportunity concerning career options and avoid sticking to the traditional gender roles when possible. Also encourage curiosity and critical thinking.
4) If you’re a young woman who has not made a career choice yet: remember that for any career you end up choosing, you should not feel any pressure from anyone else for your choice, and that there will be other women who will support you.
5) If you’re in charge of recruitment: avoid unconscious bias.
6) Anyone: encourage other people to take these actions.