27 Sep 2017

Expanding the roles of women in STEM

Women in STEM

The fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), have traditionally attracted more male than female scholars on all academic levels. The disparity of interests between genders can be seen as early as secondary school. The resulting trend is, unsurprisingly, reflected in university applications – STEM disciplines tend to be dominated by male applicants. Additionally, mobile students in STEM fields are far more likely to be male. Today’s blog, from scientist Joanna Bagniewska, explores the reasons female students lose interest in the STEM fields and shares some optimistic insight into how some organisations are working to address this trend. 

Losing interest at an early age

A study conducted in February this year showed that female students report a significant dip in the enjoyment of STEM subjects as they enter teenage years: while half of surveyed girls aged 7-11 considered Maths and Computer Science enjoyable and fun, this proportion dropped to 31% and 36% respectively in respondents aged 11-14. The above finding is coupled with the fact that more than half of teachers (57%) and parents (52%) admit to having made gender stereotypes in relation to STEM.

At university level, even in STEM subjects with a high intake of female undergraduates, there is a concern with retention of students, and ensuring that they do not drop out at any stage of their career. While the number of women in subjects such as biological sciences is high at an undergraduate stage, the proportion decreases at each progression point – postgraduate, postdoctoral, lecturer – leaving very few females at the professorial level.

Institutional biases or individual burdens?

Many explanations have been put forward to account for this disproportion – including institutional biases, implicit and direct discrimination, lack of role models or lack of confidence in the women themselves. However, research published in August shows that women are in fact more resilient than one might expect. Factors such as high school academic preparation, faculty gender ratio, or performance in the core subjects appear to have an equal effect on males and females, in terms of the risk of switching majors. Stereotyping a field as ‘masculine’ also seems to have no profound effect on the women in it. However, while individual factors appear to have no effect, their combination – particularly low grades, gender composition of class and external stereotyping signals – is a strong enough hit to drive women to drop out. It might therefore be worth investigating the ways of making the external environment a bit more ‘female friendly’ on an institutional level.

Creating a female-friendly field

One way of addressing gender inequality in British institutions is the Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) charter. Founded in 2005, it recognises and celebrates examples of good practice towards the advancement of gender equality in higher education and research. Some of the recognised actions include outreach and mentoring programmes, reducing bias in recruitment, devising flexible and part-time working schemes which ensure career progression or providing better access to childcare. Initially, the programme was limited to STEM subjects; currently it has expanded to include other disciplines.

Similarly, mobility schemes such as the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship allow women to actively pursue an international career in science. Traditionally, the mobility of female researchers has been lower than that of their male peers, as the career progression of women has often been adjusted to accommodate the needs of the family. However currently, in dual-career households, it is often the higher-earning partner who dictates the mobility strategy. Providing financial independence and promoting equal pay leads female scientists towards a much more international professional life.

We are at a point in history when the tables are turning – women are finding themselves encouraged, supported, and are suddenly beginning to grasp at the opportunities that have thus far been less accessible to them. A diversity of backgrounds, beliefs and opinions is an important contribution to the development of any field – as is retaining the potential of highly qualified employees.

Joanna Bagniewska is a Zoologist, Science Communicator and Teaching Fellow at the University of Reading in the UK.