Across the world women are more likely than men to be uneducated or undereducated. However, even in countries of relative parity, men outnumber women in STEM careers, confirming our need to look beyond education to solve this issue. I discussed the importance of all of us leaders to get involved and to act as role models in a previous post, but I would like to delve deeper into why this is even necessary.
As reported by UNESCO, not all countries have trouble getting women into STEM careers. There are many factors which could contribute to this, such as availability of jobs and educational programming, but there is one factor which I found to stick out repeatedly: Perception – The perception that STEM roles are not for women.
STEM careers, it is thought, are just not something women typically do. And so we don’t. Not because we actively think, “women shouldn’t do this,” but because it sits in our subconscious from childhood onward and is continuously reinforced by the male dominated STEM culture in our schools and our companies.
In the September 2014 Wired Magazine, author, Vikram Chandra, wrote, “In India, women feel at home in engineering. One 2013 study of Indian engineering students asked whether they ever felt left out in an academic setting. About 8 percent of female engineers reported such feelings.”
Similarly, in their study on Malaysia, Women in Computer Science: NO SHORTAGE HERE!, Mazliza Othman and Rodziah Latih concluded, “There is no gender bias with regard to how CS/IT is perceived by young Malaysians. Even though male students often started their bachelor degree program with more computer skills, it does not result in male students outperforming female students. Neither are females underrepresented among the high achievers. Female students are also more certain they will pursue a career in computer/IT industry compared to male students.”
The perception of STEM fields as masculine tends not to be shared by countries where the participation rates are higher for women. This results in more women pursuing the field, and thus contributes to the presence of more female mentors and role models. There are more female teachers and faculty at schools, more female PhDs, and so on. It’s a snowball effect – without the perceptual barriers – more women join, more women lead, and thus the idea that STEM roles are only for men becomes even more absurd.
However, in the US, and many other countries around the world, our perceptions are preventing this effect from taking course. This is why it is critical that we act as role models, as examples for the field. This is why we should push back against media that represents scientists solely as males or those rare female scientists as oddities to whom hardly anyone could relate. We have to provide a community of support to those already in these roles that will help them to be successful and give affirmation to those looking to pursue it. Finally, we have to stop defining career paths by distinctive skills and characteristics, because in today’s ever changing world – no role is black and white, and the programmers and mathematicians and scientists of the future will need to be as diversely skilled as the teachers and marketers and nurses.