What puts women off STEM?

© UNESCO

As the world marks International Women’s Day, Samah Shalaby asks how we can increase female participation in STEM and challenge the stereotypes that hold women back

Despite ongoing efforts to encourage girls and women to participate in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), they still lag substantially behind their male counterparts. According to UNESCO, women account for only 35 per cent of learners studying STEM subjects in higher education. Within the female student population, only 30 per cent choose STEM-related subjects, with female participation particularly low in ICT (3 per cent), natural science, mathematics and statistics (5 per cent) and engineering, manufacturing and construction (8 per cent).

This article, published to coincide with International Women’s Day, considers the causes of this gender gap and what we can do to close it, drawing on the perspectives of both men and women. Understandably, most studies of this issue focus predominately on the female perspective. However, it is also worth exploring the male understanding of this issue, especially as STEM fields are frequently characterized as male domains, and this may be one of the factors explaining low levels of female participation. I interviewed two men and two woman, all working in the fields of engineering and technology.

What struck me most from the interviews was just how similar the answers were, irrespective of gender. There was consensus that cultural beliefs and norms and gender stereotyping were exercising significant influence over the educational choices of girls and women. A female technologist, specializing in creative interaction, emphasized the role played by stereotypes. Children younger than 5 years old were already able to distinguish ‘girls’ toys’ from ‘boys’ toys’, she told me, and were already having their ideas of gender roles shaped by the media, which typically portrayed technicians and technologists as male. To change this, the media should do more to demonstrate that these roles are for women too. But, of course, there needed also to be more opportunities for girls and women to study in STEM and to enter STEM-related professions.

A male engineer, who works in offshore wind power, suggested that the gender imbalance in STEM sectors could be putting women off pursuing careers in these fields. Those women who do choose these professions often face discrimination and can find it difficult to progress, feeling that they are expected to do more to prove themselves than their male counterparts, he added. A female IT technician noted that men in technology often felt uncomfortable working with women and could be less than encouraging to female colleagues. More young girls should be encouraged to study technology, she said, while examples of successful women in the field should be highlighted.

A male software engineer encouraged tech companies to create more diverse teams, recruiting more women and people of different ethnicities, including to leadership positions. The big tech firms – Facebook, Google, Apple and so on – did not represent a good example in this regard, he said. The female technologist said that increasing the number of women in leadership positions in the field would have a positive impact on policy-making in STEM. Women’s voices had to be heard in order to make the sector a more congenial place for women to learn and work. However, in far too many cases, women continued to face disrespect, discrimination and a ‘glass ceiling’ when it came to progression.

These are all important influences when it comes to the educational and career choices of girls and women. Women may believe they are not capable of studying or building a career in STEM, or be put off by the male-dominated nature of many of these industries and the relatively small number of women occupying leadership positions within them. Often, parental preference and background and culture more generally also play a role in girls’ educational choices. Girls who lack positive female STEM role models in their family – or indeed in their wider culture – may be deterred from studying in these fields.

It should go without saying that girls and women ought to be free to choose any field of study and work based on their personal interest and preferences, and have a right to learn and work in a non-discriminatory environment in which they are viewed, and treated, as equals. Productivity and performance are what matters, in any field of work, and not gender. However, the barriers to achieving equity in this field remain significant. As we celebrate International Women’s Day, we should redouble our efforts to raise awareness of gender inequality and work together to break with the stereotypes that hold women back.

Samah Shalaby is an Assistant Programme Specialist at UIL and UIL’s Gender Focal Point. ‘What puts girls of STEM?’ was the subject of the latest UIL Hamburg Education Talk, which took place on 7 March 2019. Ms Shalaby was one of the speakers at the event.       

One thought on “What puts women off STEM?

  1. All these socially oriented excuses are surely valid to some extent. But the bottom line is that many women are simply not fluent in basic math and physics calculations. Therefore they cannot progress. Girls need a lot of practice early on to automatize math and understand physics and chemistry better. UIL could be talking more about these needs.

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