There are countless great, male role models in science - from Darwin to Einstein, Fleming to Hawking - but not quite so many recognised successful female scientists. According to UNESCO Institute for Statistics, just 30% of today’s researchers across the globe are women. So, the question to ask is: how accurate is this picture of gender disproportionality across the scientific disciplines?
Looking at the current numbers of women in STEM - a collection of academic fields: science, technology, engineering and maths - an imprint of the gender gap in UK still remains. The Labour Force Survey stated that from 2012 to 2014, women made up a dramatically low 12.8% of the UK’s total STEM workforce.
Furthermore, a worrying worldwide trend shows that the percentage of women in STEM jobs decreases as they climb higher up the rungs of the career ladder. For example, according to UNESCO Institute for Statistics, in Sweden more than half of students that enrol onto a Bachelor’s programme are female, but only 49% of doctoral students are women, and only 36% of research positions are taken up by females, indicating a considerable gap between male and female STEM professionals.
Bridging this gender gap can only strengthen the industries reliant on STEM professionals. A study by the CBI (Confederation of British Industry) recently found that 40% of companies looking for STEM professionals are struggling to recruit, thus if UK wishes to be a world leader in STEM disciplines, a significant effort must be put in increasing the amount of talented students and qualified, highly-skilled workers. One way to do this would be by promoting STEM degrees and ultimately jobs to more women, and balance out the underrepresentation.
According to today’s neuroscience, human brains resemble a continuum of gender characteristics. This means that rather than being categorised into “masculine and feminine clusters”, both males and females possess a complex mixture of both gender-associated characteristics. Thus, women are expected to be just as successful as men in STEM subjects.
Nevertheless, nurture plays a key role in the development of young girls, and when exposed to a culture of unconscious bias - STEM subjects being stereotypically “male” disciplines - their interest in science is unlikely to blossom. Also considering the discovery that a lack of confidence in young girls can hinder their learning, it is important to discard existing STEM gender stereotypes and offer both genders equal opportunities, so that young girls and boys may all fulfill their potential.
Create a Communal Environment
The most challenging issue existing in STEM fields is the lack of female representation in more influential and leading roles. One suggestion put forward to solve this problem is the controversial creation of single-gender work environments. A recent study carried out by the University of Science and Technology, Liaoning in China, tested the effect of gender assortment on self-efficacy and test performance in university physics classes.
Chinese students were divided into same-gender and mixed-gender teams and were asked to complete identical activities. Comparison of results indicated no significant difference between male performances in either same- or mixed-gender groups. Whereas interestingly, it was female self-efficacy as well as test-score which improved significantly in a same-gender environment. The study showed that women tend to become more competitive in a same-gender environment, in which most are comfortable expressing their opinions, and as a result take up leading positions with greater comfort.
As a female undergraduate studying biochemistry, aiming to work in a research environment, I cannot deny the fact that hearing my supposed male role models like James Watson, discoverer of the structure of DNA, making sexist remarks, and most recently Tim Hunt, a successful biochemist, expressing his opinion on crying women and love quarrels in laboratories, does make me feel uneasy.
But nevertheless, as we move into the second decade of the 21st century, the cultural values on women of the last century are becoming more ancient and progress is continually being made on engaging women in STEM, thus aiding UK to progress in STEM as a global leader, as increasing attention is being paid to not just half of the population, but all equally.