STEM fields are still a man’s world

With women mak­ing up less than a third of em­ploy­ees in the science, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math­e­mat­ics fields glob­ally, what can be done to change this gen­der im­bal­ance?

Finweek English Edition - - ON THE MONEY - Ed­i­to­rial@fin­week.co.za

we were hav­ing lunch re­cently with my part­ner’s cousin, her hus­band and their two lit­tle girls, when the hus­band told us an amus­ing story about the youngest, who is six. When her class at school was mak­ing a big deal about Valen­tine’s Day, the girl had some rather pointed ques­tions for her teacher. “Why does my Valen­tine have to be a boy?” she asked. “Why does Valen­tine’s have to be pink?” she added, be­fore declar­ing, “I like green.”

As the story was told, we all chuck­led, but in truth my heart was swelling with pride. At six she was bravely chal­leng­ing gen­der stereo­types that so many go through life sim­ply ac­cept­ing.

Just that morn­ing I had been read­ing an ar­ti­cle on The Con­ver­sa­tion, writ­ten by Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor Nox Makunga.

In the ar­ti­cle Makunga ar­gued that chil­dren’s ideas about what their gen­der means for their in­tel­lec­tual ca­pac­ity are formed be­fore they turn six.

She added that for this rea­son, the preva­lent stereo­type that only boys are good at maths and science is do­ing in­cred­i­ble harm. “Re­search has shown that girls hardly ever see adult women do­ing jobs that in­volve science, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math­e­mat­ics (STEM) on tele­vi­sion pro­grammes,” wrote Makunga.

She ar­gued that these stereo­types per­pet­u­ated by the me­dia, along­side a lack of vis­i­ble women in­volved in STEM sec­tors to act as role mod­els, have a huge im­pact on young girls’ ca­reer choices.

This month the United Na­tions sec­re­tary-gen­eral, An­tónio Guter­res, urged for greater in­vest­ments in teach­ing STEM sub­jects to all women and girls, as well as equal ac­cess to these op­por­tu­ni­ties.

He ar­gued that “dis­crim­i­na­tory stereo­types” pre­vent women and girls from hav­ing equal ac­cess to STEM ed­u­ca­tion. “As a trained engi­neer and for­mer teacher, I know that these stereo­types are flat wrong,” he added.

Re­cent data pub­lished by Unesco shows that women glob­ally make up less than 30% of peo­ple work­ing in STEM ca­reers.

Per­haps my spir­ited young rel­a­tive may end up work­ing in one of the STEM sec­tors.

She has a mother who works in in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy – in fact, be­fore join­ing us for lunch, she had spent that Sun­day morn­ing up­load­ing new soft­ware to her em­ployer’s servers. The girl’s fa­ther works in the tele­coms sec­tor. Makunga points out that at univer­sity level in South Africa, equal num­bers of men and women are en­rolling in STEM de­grees, but by the time you get to post­grad­u­ate level the num­bers are skewed in favour of men, in­di­cat­ing that women are drop­ping out of the sys­tem. Many women work­ing in STEM sec­tors who have writ­ten about the prob­lem re­fer to this as the “leaky pipe­line”. Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity lec­turer Mer­ryn McKin­non, in an ar­ti­cle pub­lished last year on The Con­ver­sa­tion, ar­gued that sim­ply try­ing to get more women to study STEM de­grees with­out ad­dress­ing the broader sys­temic prej­u­dices that women face would achieve noth­ing. So while my young rel­a­tive is grow­ing up in a house with two par­ents who work in STEM fields, she will – like any other woman – still face an up­hill strug­gle in her bid to get her ter­tiary qual­i­fi­ca­tions. And go­ing out into the world of work, she’ll face an­other layer of op­pres­sion. On the same Sun­day that we were hav­ing lunch, across the At­lantic, a for­mer Uber site re­li­a­bil­ity engi­neer, Su­san Fowler, took to her blog to de­tail the sex­ual ha­rass­ment and hu­man re­sources neg­li­gence she had ex­pe­ri­enced at the tech­nol­ogy com­pany. Fowler said she was sex­u­ally propo­si­tioned by a se­nior man­ager and re­ported it to the com­pany, with screen grabs of the in­ap­pro­pri­ate mes­sage. Uber’s HR staff, ac­cord­ing to Fowler, de­scribed the man­ager’s act as an “in­no­cent mis­take” and re­fused to dis­ci­pline him. Uber has since launched a full in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the mat­ter. Sex­ual ha­rass­ment ap­pears very preva­lent in the tech sec­tor – a re­cent re­port by Ele­phant in the Val­ley states that 60% of all US women with tech ca­reers who were sur­veyed had ex­pe­ri­enced un­wanted sex­ual ad­vances at work. In the wake of Fowler’s al­le­ga­tions against Uber, tech­nol­ogy pub­li­ca­tions have high­lighted dis­crim­i­na­tion that women face in the work­place. Many of the ar­ti­cles make for damn­ing read­ing and paint pic­tures of cor­po­rate cul­tures that es­sen­tially con­done sex­ual ha­rass­ment. If we are go­ing to do some­thing about gen­der in­equal­ity in the STEM sec­tors, we can’t limit the con­ver­sa­tion to role mod­els and pro­grammes to up­lift young girls. We also need to talk about sys­temic prej­u­dice in academia and the work­place that af­fect women on a daily ba­sis. Even more im­por­tantly, men need to un­der­stand that ha­rass­ment in the work­place is a vi­o­lent crime and not an “in­no­cent mis­take”.

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