I had been asking myself the question: why do we need women in STEM? I was dissatisfied with the standard answer: “gender balance”. Why is it important to maintain gender balance? After all, there is a gender imbalance in other disciplines such as early childhood workers, primary and secondary education. In these fields, there are many more women than men. Do we really have to achieve “gender balance” across all fields?
I would like to investigate further why gender imbalance in STEM is an issue. I did not fully understand the implications until I had a conversation with a male colleague. At the time, I had just started a project with a hospital and we were planning to investigate why the Caesarean rate of the hospital was higher than that of the state average. I posed the question about Cesarean rates. To which my colleague replied, “It’s vanity, isn’it?”. Being a mother who has experienced first, a Caesarean, then a natural birth, I was shocked by his reply. I then gave several reasons why Caesareans are sometimes necessary, and why a high rate needs further investigations. It then dawned on me that the lack of females in STEM could have a bigger impact than I had realised.
These days, no one is immune from the impact of STEM. The lack of female representation in STEM might mean that we have fewer professionals who understand the challenges faced by women. I do not mean to say that men do not care, but they may be unable to understand the challenges as much as women can, such as the underlying problems related to childbirth. The colleague I talked to is definitely not sexist – he has always treated me with respect, but his lack of firsthand experience may have made it difficult for him to empathise.
In “Advancing Women in STEM”, a report from the Australian Government stated that STEM skills are important for future jobs, and basic STEM knowledge allows its citizens to discuss many important issues that are facing the Australian society, “from health care to energy use” (Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, 2019). So, how do we increase female participation in STEM?
Research shows that there are differences in performance scores between boys and girls, but biological differences is an inadequate explanation because the differences are small and differ from country to country. The differences are insignificant in countries where there is more gender equity (Guiso et al., 2008). Another interesting observation from Guiso et al is that girls tend to have better literacy skills compared to boys even when their STEM scores are higher than boys. However, there is a paradox that the participation of women in STEM is higher where there is less gender equity (Stoet and Geary, 2018). It was hypothesised that the lack of gender equity forces women to pursue careers that have higher financial rewards. While women in countries with better gender equity mean they can pursue careers in areas they are strongest at, which includes non-STEM even when they have STEM abilities.
When I talked to students, I highlighted that if they are good at both STEM and non-STEM subjects, then they might still like to pursue both areas of studies. They were quite surprised when I pointed out that their strengths in non-STEM areas, such as arts (literature, music, visual arts, etc) are actually great assets for many STEM careers. Ada Lovelace, the world’s first programmer was a brilliant mathematician, a pianist and a poet; Cecilia Payne, an astrophysicist who first discovered that the sun is mostly made of gases, knew at least six languages and continued to learn more; Albert Einstein was also a violinist and of course, the incredible Leonardo da Vinci whose contributions in arts, engineering and science are unquestionable. I explained that creativity is a great asset in STEM, as problem-solving in STEM also requires creative thinking.
The Honorable Karen Andrews, the Australian Minister for Industry, Science and Technology said that the solution to gender balance in STEM is multifaceted, and would require efforts from “government, industry, academia, research, education and the community” (Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, 2019).
For this reason, we have formed WE2ST. We are a group of academics who would like to promote women in STEM by:
- Encouraging women to take up STEM.
- Helping women in their academics career in STEM
- Publishing research related to women in STEM
Department of Industry, Innovation and Science (2019). Advancing Women in STEM. [online] Australian Government. Available at: https://www.industry.gov.au/sites/default/files/2019-04/advancing-women-in-stem.pdf [Accessed 3 Nov. 2019].
Guiso, L., Monte, F., Sapienza, P. and Zingales, L. (2008). DIVERSITY: Culture, Gender, and Math. Science, 320(5880), pp.1164-1165.
Stoet, G. and Geary, D. (2018). The Gender-Equality Paradox in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education. Psychological Science, 29(4), pp.581-593.
Many thanks to Dr Sally Firmin for many wonderful discussions and editing. I also thank my colleagues at Federation University for giving me the opportunity to write the introduction to WE2ST blog.