Women need successful, local role models if STEM gender gap is to be closed

Women need successful, local role models if STEM gender gap is to be closed

In my previous column, I discussed recent positive and negative developments for women in science — most notably the fact that this year both the physics and the chemistry Nobel Prizes included a woman, a very rare occurrence indeed. But this happy development should not let us forget the low percentage of women in science and technology careers almost everywhere around the world.
So I would like to explore the surprising fact that, while girls tend to do at least as well as boys in science tests from primary and secondary school to university courses, the fraction of women who end up following STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers is very low. 
In the UK, for example, while science test scores in 2015 showed little gender difference (in fact, girls’ performance were slightly better than boys’), women represent barely 40 percent of university students in science and technology fields. Most shockingly, British women make up less than 15 percent of the STEM workforce, whereas they represent half of the workers in the general employment landscape. 
In the Arab world, girls not only outperform boys in all fields at school, including science and mathematics, in most countries they also make up a large majority of university students. But in science and engineering majors, we start to see smaller fractions, usually less than 40 percent. There are no reliable statistics about Arab women in different careers, but it is safe to say that they are a minority, especially in STEM fields.
This then is the perplexing paradox: Girls are definitely capable of succeeding in STEM fields, they prove it at school every day, but even in countries where gender equality is quite advanced (nowhere is it really fully achieved), young women prefer to stay away from science and technology areas of work and specialty. Why?

We will not achieve great progress in getting young women to take up science and technology careers simply by repeating to them that they are not inferior to boys and men.

Nidhal Guessoum

Sociologists, psychologists and educators have started to look more closely into the problem. Meta-analyses of various tests and surveys conducted internationally and on hundreds of thousands or even millions of subjects have shown there is no systematic gender difference in terms of abilities in science, mathematics, and technology fields. But, interestingly, some psychological effects have been uncovered, particularly issues of anxiety and (lack of) self-confidence regarding mathematics and science topics. For some reason, girls seem to be affected by these psychological afflictions significantly more than boys.
There also seems to be some insidious social pressures that steer girls away from STEM fields. Some studies have found that teenage girls felt more attracted to “softer” fields (health, education, humanities) even though they continued to be as capable as the boys — if not more so — in math and science tests. Most worrisome are the indications that have surfaced from some studies that girls are often convinced they are not smart enough for the advanced science and technology fields, that those are for the “geniuses” (often imagined as men of a strange type), contrary to the results that they all see at school.
Researchers also point to what they call a “social belongingness” effect, that is both boys and girls unconsciously being pulled to the fields where they find more people of their own gender. It is both a psychologically “reassuring” effect and a vicious cycle, where gender parity becomes difficult to achieve despite all the efforts. And, indeed, progress on gender balance in STEM fields has been very slow in recent years, even in countries where gender equality is high. 
Finally, the dearth of role models that girls can relate to (female scientists or inventors from their own country or society) seems to also have a significant subconscious negative impact. Ask any youngster to name a prominent scientist of today, and he/she will invariably name a white male Westerner (if they can think of any). Even among popular science communicators — those who present science and technology to the general public through TV programs, YouTube videos or social media posts — few could mention any from their own culture or region, male or female.
We will not achieve great progress in getting young women to take up science and technology careers simply by repeating to them that they are not inferior to boys and men. Success in this, and it is vital for human and economic development that no talent be lost, will be achieved by working on the insidious negative effects that permeate society (ours and others) and that make girls steer away from STEM fields and careers of their own will. Local role models could be a good start.

  • Nidhal Guessoum is a professor of physics and astronomy at the American University of Sharjah. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum
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