International Women and Girls in Science Day

Sexing Science - Where have all the girl scientists gone?

Article by Gina Rippon, Professor of Neuroscience at Aston University

International Women and Girls in Science Day21st century science has a problem. It is short of scientists. Technological innovations mean that the world needs many more specialists in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects than it is currently training.

A report from the UK’s Royal Society in 2019 showed that the demand for data scientists has increased by nearly 300% over the last five years; the United States has identified a need to increase the number of STEM graduates by 34% to meet forecast demands. In addition, this problem is compounded by the fact that women, 49.7% of the world’s population, despite clear evidence of aptitude and ability for science subjects, are not choosing to study STEM subjects, are not being recruited into the STEM workforce, are not staying in the STEM workplace, are not succeeding in science. Gender gaps in science are startling – NSF data in 2016 show only 19% of computer science graduates in the US are female (down from 27% in 1997) with similar data for physics; in the UK, only 10.3% of engineering professionals and 16.4% of ICT professionals are women; globally, women account for less than a third (29.3%) of those employed in scientific research and development. If the world needs more scientists, then a good place to start would seem to be to find out why women don’t do science.

There is a long and fairly well-rehearsed ‘blame the brain’ story, with essentialist or biology-is-destiny type arguments historically asserting that women’s brains do not afford their owners the appropriate cognitive skills for science.  A newer spin on this is that female biology equates with a personality that is unsuited for the rigours of a science career and/or underpins preferences for working with people, incompatible with the allegedly ‘thing-like’ nature of science. This contemporary essentialist story can be found in discussions around what is known as The Gender Equality Paradox.

The Gender Equality Paradox – a new entry in an old playbook.

“As we see it, the so-called gender equality paradox is a new entry in an old playbook of arguing that biological sex differences, not social inequalities, drive the gender disparities we see in areas such as STEM.”

So what is the Gender Equality Paradox [GEP]? A paper published in 2018 reported the finding that women are more likely to be under-represented in the sciences in countries that have the highest levels of gender equality. This would appear to be at odds with claims that a lack of gender equality had been behind the lack of women in science; reducing the gender equality gaps should, therefore, have resulted in increasing numbers of women in science. Hence the paradox.

The authors had investigated STEM engagement between 2012 and 2015 in sixty-seven countries, reporting that fewer women than men were obtaining STEM degrees. They then linked this to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index [GGGI], reporting that in those countries where the gender gap was smallest (e.g. Finland, Norway, Sweden), the underrepresentation of women was highest. Performance scores on tests of scientific ability showed no female-male differences, so the dearth of women could not be pinned on some kind of cognitive deficit.

This ‘paradox’ was interpreted in a variety of ways. One was that in the least gender equal countries, STEM jobs were better paid and so economic necessity drove the choices of both sexes. So you chose to do science because you had to. But in more gender equal countries, economic factors could take second place to the choice of a subject which ‘played to your strengths’ and would be more likely to bring you a sense of ‘efficacy and joy’ (sic); life satisfaction could be given priority over economic necessity.

The ‘efficacy and joy’ effect was linked to the fact that, as well as all the performance measures indicating that females were as good as males at science, they also showed that females were almost universally better at reading and reading-related skills. And so, in the absence of the economic pressures which would drive females to a science career in less gender equal countries, Scandinavian girls could cheerfully turn their back on better-paid science [at which they were equally as good as boys]  and choose more poorly-paid, reading-based humanities-type subjects [because they were better than boys]. (Although the pay aspect might stand up to scrutiny, the inference of a disconnect between science skills and reading ability might well be worthy of discussion elsewhere).

There is a familiar whiff of biological determinism in the narrative exploring the findings. Reference is made to “endogenous interests” (undefined) in determining career choice, suggesting that a choice between science and humanities is somehow internally determined: “We hypothesize that men are more likely than women to enter STEM careers because of endogenous interests……. Societal conditions can change the degree to which exogenous interests influence STEM careers (e.g., the possibilities of STEM careers to satisfy socio-economic needs). But when there is an equal playing field [own emphasis] and studying STEM is just as useful (balancing income and career satisfaction) as a degree in other areas, people are better able to pursue their interests and not simply their future economic needs.” Reference is also made to other ‘paradoxical’ findings in more gender equal countries, for example that higher levels of sex differences in particular personality characteristics had been found in countries with the smaller gender gaps. The suggestion in that research was that “personality traits of men and women [are] less constrained and more able to naturally [own emphasis] diverge in developed nations”.

So the 21st century explanation of gender gaps in science is still linked to a ‘natural’ expression of some kind of innate differences. Recall, however, that the authors of the Gender Equality Paradox paper make reference to an “equal playing field”, based presumably on the assumption that the narrower a country’s gender gap, the more equal or level any ‘playing field’ might be for women in those countries. It is worth considering just how level the playing field is when it comes to the culture of STEM.

The Playing Fields of Science – a glass obstacle course for women.

“…..career pathways for women scientists and engineers are shaped by ideological and structural constraints, informal and formal biases, and active resistance or accommodation to them”.

It is well documented that, in previous centuries, women were proactively excluded from science and scientific institutions, leading inevitably to the stereotype of science being for men and scientists being male. Even as relatively recently as the 1950s, boys were being asked what kind of scientists they might like to be when they grew up, whereas girls were asked what kind of scientist they might like to marry. We may well have moved on from this kind of bias, but there is still clear evidence in the 21st century of covert (or even overt) elements within the culture of science that can form powerful barriers against women.

Having overcome early self- and other-generated ‘gatekeeping’ beliefs that science is for men, women may still encounter obstacles to entry. Gender bias has been found in the kind of references that may be written, with women more likely to be described as ‘pleasant and easy to get along with’ than ‘superb and exceptional’.  Experimental tasks have demonstrated that when identical CVs are attributed to either a female or a male, faculty appointment boards (including both males and females) are more likely to select the male candidate, offer him more money and greater mentoring opportunities.

There are many ways in which success is measured in science. Having worked around barriers to entry, women may then encounter gender bias on the roads to success. This can include first-author publications, citations, grant income, prizes. In all of these spheres, the operation of both conscious and unconscious bias against women is demonstrable.

With respect to publications, several studies have noted a marked gender imbalance, particularly in more prestigious journals, including those in the Nature portfolio. This does not appear to be related to quality, as there were no differences in rejection rates. A key factor appeared to be seniority, with more senior authors, of whom significantly more were male, having a higher output. Once published, a measure of a publication’s quality is how often it is cited. Again, there is evidence that papers with female key authors are cited less frequently. Two factors identified as relevant are that male scientists have wider and larger networks, where it is not uncommon that members cite each other; also that men are much more likely than women to cite themselves!

Some playing field unevenness is evident in the grant winning stakes too. One study of Scandinavian countries (noting that this would be classed as an area with the lowest gender gaps) showed that, in competing for post-doctoral fellowships, women had to be 2.5 times more productive than men to get the same score on a points-based system. Although overall success rates are proportionately comparable, there is evidence that women apply for less money and are less likely to apply for the largest grants. One telling finding is that, where grant reviewers were told to focus on the quality of the science rather than the scientist, sex differences were minimal; where they were asked to focus on the quality of the (same) scientists, men had a significantly higher chance than women of being rewarded the grants.

Gender imbalance in the receipt of prestigious prizes is the starkest reminder of how far science has yet to go to recognise success in female scientists, although there are, of course, centuries of history to counteract. In the Nobel awards, women are woefully under-represented, especially in Physics (1%), Chemistry (3%) and Medicine (12%). Nominations for Nobel prizes also tell a tale – between 1901-1964, of the 10,818 nominations for awards in physics, chemistry, medicine or physiology, just 98 were for women (and of these, only five, including Marie Curie, actually won awards – with Marie Curie getting two). Indeed, there is still evidence of a belief in some kind of ‘raw, innate, ability’ that is needed to endow the flash of genius required to win such prizes, and that this ability is characteristically male. The very recent announcement of two women being awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry is clearly a move in the right direction, although it was accompanied with a certain amount of breathless coverage of the rarity of such an occurrence. Early career awards suggest that the lack of female science Nobel laureates might not be solved by some kind of catch-up process over time; for example, only 19% of the Society for Neuroscience’s Young Investigator Awards have so far gone to women.

One of the social psychology theories referred to by the authors of the GEP paper is the expectancy-value theory. This identifies two categories of factors, which can influence whether or not you take on a challenge. One of these is task values – your interest in what the task entails, or how useful you perceive undertaking this task might be to you. An implicit aspect of the interpretation of the GEP data is that gender equality can allow a freer choice among values, your choice not being driven by economic necessity – you can make your choice based on what you might prefer to do, not what you have to do. But what about expectancies, specifically expectancies of success? As we have seen above, there is clear evidence that it is the men in science who get the prestige and the prizes (and the higher salaries), which could well be as much of a negative driver for females making career choices as any alleged Thing-like quality of such careers.

The Chilly Climate Effect – reintroducing the brain.

As well as the bases of uniquely human skills such as language and creativity, our brains are wired to make us social. A sense of belonging is a powerful motivational force, with negative social experiences linked to the same brain areas activated by real physical pain. Specialised networks of brain activity have been associated with the maintenance of self-esteem and the consequences of a loss of such esteem. Social rejection, low status, poor self-image and low levels of peer support have been shown to activate powerful inhibitory pathways in the brain associated with anxiety and depression and high levels of self-criticism. Behaviourally, this has been shown to result in a form of academic self-silencing and withdrawal.

It is possible then, that the absence of women from science is indeed a brain problem, but not one to do with internally determined, individual cognitive capacity but one to do with externally determined social engagement.  Contemporary essentialist views allow consideration of the brain-changing effects of external and not just internal factors and how these can, indeed, affect preferences and performance. The link between brains and their world is not a one-way street.

Confronted with an institution which views them as probably inferior, possibly incompetent, (ideally, indeed, invisible), brain-driven processes may well determine that women will take their skills elsewhere.  So a level (and welcoming) playing field does indeed seem to be important for the engagement and retention of well-qualified female scientists – and science needs to wake up to the fact that its playing fields are neither level nor welcoming.

The shortfall in recruiting and retaining women in science arises from a complex entanglement of brains and experiences, stereotypes and self-belief, culture and politics, conscious and unconscious bias. To eliminate gender gaps we need to address the issue of place as well as people, and genuinely ensure an equal playing field for all.

There is currently an ongoing debate about how the authors generated the data that came up with this conclusion. An unorthodox way of measuring science choice mixed with a somewhat personalised tweak of the GGGI suggests that their correlational data may not anyway be telling such a clear-cut story. Nevertheless, the essentialist rhetoric in their discussion is an interesting example of a newly emerging narrative round sex differences and gender gaps.


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The future of jobs; innovators in STEM & glass ceilings | WeAreTechWomen's take-aways from the 2019 WISE Conference

Written by Indigo Haze, Digital Marketing and Social Media Assistant at WeAreTheCity

Last week, the WeAreTechWomen team had the pleasure of attending the 2019 WISE Conference at the IET in London.

The conference was a full-packed day of debates, workshops and presentations on the future of working women in the technology industry. The speakers loaded each session with tips, tricks and research findings all delivered with a touch of humour. Here is a breakdown of what we learnt in the morning sessions.

Future Jobs and Women: Answers from the LinkedIn Platform

Lisa FinneganLisa Finnegan, Senior Director of HR, EMEA & LATAM at LinkedIn, presented our first session, where she shared the findings of a recent study on the future of jobs and women. From their own data of 630 million users, 26 million companies, 60 thousand schools and 20 million active jobs, LinkedIn found that while the percentage of women in STEM careers is on the rise, there is still a distinct lack of women working in the computer sciences industry.

This is due to the stereotype that has followed the computer science industry since the early 1990s, of a single lonely soul working away at their computer, frantically typing away at their keyboard, in a damp and dark room, coding by themselves. This stereotype is not one that attracts women to the industry and in reality, it isn't like this anymore. Computer science, programming and coding can be an exciting and creative career path. Lisa commented that this is the image that the industry needs to project, which can be achieved by giving more visibility to female role models already working and succeeding in the industry. This should encourage girls to consider choosing computer sciences as a subject at university and as an inspiring and viable career path.

LinkedIn’s research also shows a lack of women in the AI space, making up 22 per cent of the workforce. A large proportion of these women are working as teachers, rather than in AI. Lisa talked about how for the future of AI we need to make diversity in the workforce the norm, as without it our AI will end up with the developers' unconscious bias. She gave the example of facial recognition software. If we teach the software using only the faces of white men, then the software will be great at telling the difference between this racial group, but the software wouldn’t be able to perform the same task when shown images of women of colour. However, this issue wouldn’t arise if we developed the software using the skills and considering the opinions of a diverse group of developers.

Across all job sectors, LinkedIn’s findings showed that ‘soft skills’ such as HR, marketing and people management are the most sort after by employers and that there are large differences between how men and women approach a job search. Where men are more likely to ask for help in the form of recommendations or mentorship, women are 20 per cent less likely to ask for any help. Women are also 16 per cent less likely to apply for roles than men and hiring managers are 13 per cent less likely to open a female LinkedIn profile over a man’s profile. However, once they’ve set their minds to apply for a role, women are 16 per cent more likely to be successful in landing their chosen position. Moving forward Lisa says we need to move the focus in schools away from general ICT and develop more programmes around computer sciences. We also need to take the focus away from general STEM and put more training and resources into AI and to ensuring women know about the opportunities available to them.

Fiona McDonnellMaking a Difference—How Women can be Innovators in STEM

Fiona McDonnell, from Amazon, presented our second session of the day. She shared Amazon’s research on the barriers and enablers of women’s careers in STEM environments and how women are becoming innovators. Fiona revealed that there is a 23 per cent representation of women in STEM and that only 15 per cent of these are in senior management positions. If we increased this by just ten per cent, the research suggested that this would generate an extra £3bn in business for the UK. Amazon found that nine out of the ten women they spoke with in the STEM industry are facing barriers in their career progression. 84 per cent of women listed confidence as their biggest barrier, along with 75 per cent pointing towards a male majority environment and 72 per cent pointing to a lack of recognition from senior management. Fiona also showed that there are language barriers in how women talk about being innovators and that new roles in the industry are being advertised using bias language that attracts men but puts off women from applying. Amazon has recognised that we need to have a supportive culture in place to ensure that the STEM skills women have are being utilized. The bottom line is that we need more diversity in the STEM industry, and that ‘diversity drives innovation.’

From this research, Amazon launched its Amazon Amplify programme, which aims to increase the recruitment and retention of women in technology. Through this programme, Amazon offers more bias training for their managers and they have changed their interview questions and panel to be as gender neutral as possible. They have also launched an interactive UK wide training programme along with a back to work programme to boost retention in engineering. They have also increased their funding for women innovator programmes, including offering a mentoring scheme and having a STEM workshops for their employees’ children.

Women and Science - Why plastic brains aren’t breaking through glass ceilings

Gina RipponGina Rippon, from the Aston Brain Centre at Aston University in Birmingham, presented our third session of the day.  She spoke about the findings in her book “The Gendered Brain.” Gina explained that scientific research into understanding the brain has held the old-fashioned view that because there are two genders, there must be two types of brains, the male and the female brain. This traditional view holds the belief that men are superior to women, and that women are not suitable to study or work in the STEM industry because they have the wrong skills set, being more empathetic whereas men are better at spatial cognition. They have the wrong temperament, in the sense that women are too often caught up in their emotions to make rational decisions, and that it does not interest women to learn about science. They derived this old-fashioned view from the status quo of society at the time. This opinion is still rampant in the scientific community today. This viewpoint has held women back in the scientific community for generations and is still creating barriers for women who want to chase a career in STEM, despite recent research showing that there is no significant difference between the brains of women and men.

In fact, research shows that the brain is malleable and changing. Social activity is the most important factor when looking at the changing brain, as we all need to find a connection with people that hold the same morals, support and believe in us. Gina expressed how our brains are shaped by the attitude, opinions and expectations of those around us. For women in STEM, this means that a lack of appreciation, direction and inclusion from senior managers and colleagues can inhibit their self-development at work, lower their self-confidence and wear down their motivation. She concluded that men and women need to work together to rule out gender bias in the scientific community and lift each other up to achieve our greatest potential. Which would help us make greater strides in our understanding of gender and open up more opportunities in STEM for women.

Discussion Panel

Following these sessions, we were introduced to Dr Hayaatun Sillem from the Royal Academy of Engineering hosting a discussion panel between Lisa Finnegan from LinkedIn, Fiona McDonnell from Amazon, Gina Rippon from Aston University and Poppy Gustafsson, the CEO of Darktrace. They discussed the gender pay gap and intersectionality in STEM, how women can cause disruption to the system and the future of jobs in STEM.

panel discussion, WISE conference

Poppy started the discussion on gender and intersectionality saying that ‘gender is irrelevant’ regarding hiring for roles in STEM, with 40 per cent of her workforce at Darktrace being made-up of women. Lisa added that LinkedIn recognises that there is a diverse range of women working in the industry that need the support of a community to achieve their potential and to feel valued in their sector. To help this, they have been introducing groups such as LGBT and ethnic minority networks that bring women together across the globe. Gina commented on how important groups like these are, as social inclusion is the most important factor in our self-esteem. She also noted that with the STEM academic industry there are still large barriers to women, as there is not the same level of demand for change in academia as there is in the business world. All members of the panel agreed that women have the power to change the system and that by banding together, we can cause enough disruption to demand change. However, they noted that this can be difficult for women in the workplace, depending on their position in the company and that if done incorrectly disruption to the system could, in fact, reinforce the bias that already exists.

The panel then moved on to discuss the future of jobs in STEM. Poppy started the debate saying it is unnecessary for women who want to work in the tech industry to have a background in STEM, as they often have transferable skills key to the industry. Lisa said that as 80 per cent of the 2030 workforce has already left full-time education, it is important to change the hiring process now. The language used in job descriptions needs changing as there is a gender bias in STEM job adverts, for example, labelling a job as having ‘heavy leadership’, deters women from applying. Lisa further mentioned that interviewing panels need changing, to ensure that there is a diverse range of interviewers in panels and that core skills should be at the forefront of employers’ requirements, rather than just a job title. Gina added that women are less likely to apply for internal promotions due to the male-majority culture. This is something that needs to change in order for us to move forward.

panel discussion, WISE conference

The panel then discussed the gender pay gap. Fiona started the conversation saying, if we want to close the gender pay gap in the STEM industry then we need to inspire more women to go into the sector. ‘Science is no longer just a bunsen burner on the table’, with subjects like computer sciences offering new career opportunities for women. Lisa added that LinkedIn is trying to end gender and social barriers in STEM by showing the future generation the importance of their parents’ work. They are doing this by allowing employees to bring their children into work and interact with technology innovatively, such as building their own LinkedIn profile out of Lego. To finish the discussion, all the women shared the key thing they wanted people to take away from the sessions. Gina wanted us to remember that our brains are flexible and that you can change your mind, Fiona wanted us to remain adaptable, Lisa wanted us to remember the importance of soft skills and their transferability in STEM and finally Poppy wanted us to drive out unconscious bias in the workplace.

Do you want more?

Do you want to know more about what we learnt in the afternoon sessions at the 2019 WISE Conference?

Keep your eyes peeled for our other articles on the event coming soon. You can find out more about WISE and the wonderful work they do here.