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STEMinism: Is Equality Achievable?

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Females have continued to outnumber males in number of overall university places, however it has been widely broadcasted that stark gender inequalities exist within science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) workforces. I now question how psychology, a discipline with characteristics of both hard science and sociality, can bridge the gender gap and wonder whether the dichotomy marks a crisis for women in STEM jobs. Indeed, the practicalities of achieving equality in STEM must be assessed, while creating an open dialogue surrounding gender representation –specifically in the scientific domain.

A version of the Implicit Association Test investigated the inherent biases relating to perceptions of science and gender and the interplay between the two. Consistently, more than 70 per cent of participants readily associate men with science and women with arts. Unsurprisingly, this translates directly to the recruitment and retention of female employees in STEM careers. For example, the US Department of Labor reported that women make up only 12.9% of all engineers. Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) also revealed that in 2014 in the UK, 12% of STEM workers are female.

These statistics are regularly featured in UK media, and despite the heavy coverage of this gender issue, there appears to be little made in the way of change. Therefore, I now wonder whether we, as a psychological community, are becoming desensitised, and thus somewhat less responsive to reports of the STEM gender gap. I believe it has been left to psychologists to attempt to tackle this divide, and encourage women into the scientific community.

Looking at a more corporate workforce, the hugely influential work of Schein outlined a ‘think manager- think male’ phenomenon. This effect occurs when individuals associate high-power managerial positions as inherently masculine. Indeed, I would extend this and argue that a ‘think scientist – think male’ effect also remains omnipresent in our contemporary culture. This proves largely problematic and poses some real questions for psychology. How can we encourage women to join the world of STEM. One plausible answer might come from Donna Milgram who suggest strategies in a guide entitled How to recruit women and girls into the STEM classroom.

When I first discovered this article I felt largely encouraged but upon reading it, the message was somewhat conflicting. ‘Women and girls identify with the colour pink’ claims Milgram, adding that ‘if you have the opportunity to make flyers pink…then go for it’. This, I suggest, is entirely counterintuitive. Surely to make the prospects of STEM or other academic scientific careers stereotypically girl-friendly muddies the message? To draw upon tropes of femininity and use these to superficially frame science as attractive, are we not defeating the whole point? Diversity is a workplace’s greatest asset. There are countless research papers which identify how inter-gender cooperation at work can aid productivity and cohesion and yet this interdependence has not yet been achieved by the STEM industry.

Toymakers Thames and Cosmos recently unveiled a new ‘engineering Barbie’ doll, complete with a ‘STEM kit’ in attempt to encourage female STEM engagement. Despite good intentions, the hyper-girly pink theme of the doll diminishes any scientific credibility and reverts entirely back to stereotype. Suffice to say, their efforts were not received uncritically by the public. The issue of feminising STEM to entice female employees is, sadly, backwards logic.

Laura Bates, author of Everyday Sexism, argues that ‘people still don’t see the problem with directing hugely stereotyped, patronising and limited messaging towards girls and young women’. She continues, slating the STEM industry’s attempts to attract girls through their ‘focus on hearts, cupcakes and high heels.’ This argument demonstrates the entrenched nature of sexism and female-degrading stereotypes in our culture. It also highlights a fundamental flaw in the attempts of STEM employees. I suggest appealing to women’s academic aptitude and promoting the opportunity to contribute to a well-defined and innovative workforce would be a more successful method, rather than reverting to stereotype.

I now find myself asking: Is there a genuine inherent difference in mathematical and scientific ability, which places females at a disadvantage? Is this difference biological? And therefore, am I fighting a losing battle? I know that if I gave this question to a neuropsychologist, my answer would arrive in the form of an fMRI scan and a complicated biological explanation. However, I believe that psychology is the crucial anomaly which refutes this idea. Psychology is science packaged differently. It is less white lab coats and more personality and culture. It is, in my humble opinion, the crux of the STEM gender argument. Despite being a discipline governed by science, the APA Center for Workforce Studies announced in 2009 that females contribute to 78 per cent of psychology doctorate graduates and 74 per cent of early career psychologists.

Indeed, looking at my own experience, the gender divide in my university lecture theatres appears to almost completely refute the gender divide of traditional STEM careers. I therefore argue that it is not ‘science’ per se that women cannot relate to, but rather the social connotations that are associated with the discipline. I find the issue somewhat of a chicken-and-egg dilemma. Everything in our contemporary culture is gendered and stereotyped, including every industry. Therefore, throughout education and social exchanges this gender typing is reinforced – albeit often implicitly. I would contend that female disengagement in STEM workforces is due to discouragement rather than inability. In support of this, a report from the OECD suggests that young girls are as competent as boys in science and maths, but crucially lack the confidence in these subjects.

Interestingly, internal beliefs of males and females have been found to differ significantly in relation to STEM careers, which must dramatically influence the subsequent employment of genders. Researchers analysed the internal correlates of genders, which act as predictors for STEM engagement. They highlighted the discrepancy between the self-efficacy of male and females. Self-efficacy relates, in this context, to the belief in potential success in a particular career path. The researchers, along with several others, contend that females have relatively lower self-efficacy and score higher on perfectionism traits. Therefore, this offers an alternative explanation to the STEM gender divide. This challenges the view that females are biologically less apt for a career in STEM, and instead proposes that it is the perceptions of career barriers that contribute to the gender gap.

Obama stated in his Educate to Innovate campaign that women are an ‘underrepresented group’ in STEM careers. One theory to explain this incongruence in a social learning capacity is Fiske’s Stereotype Content Model, which suggests that women are inherently seen as more ‘warm’ and men as more ‘competent’. However, despite the tradition of science being generally attributed to competence over warmth, psychology disproves this.

A study in teaching of psychology suggested that women are drawn to study psychology specifically because they perceive themselves as empathetic and warm. Furthermore, it has been found that women working in the masculine domain of STEM were perceived as either warm or competent, but never both.

Unhelpful comments attacking female STEMininsts (STEM field feminist) must play some role in the gender handicap. Nobel laureate Tim Hunt controversially condemned girls in STEM careers, stating that the ‘trouble with girls’ in scientific laboratories is ‘you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.’ Of course, it would be an insult to the intellect of prospective and established female scientists to suggest that Hunt’s comments will completely deter women from STEM careers. However, it is emblematic of a generally sexist mindset during the women in STEM discussions.

Science is, in essence, objective and logical. Yet, there is a clear incongruence with this and the ‘warmth and emotion’ stereotype of women that is so actively ingrained in society. This, unfortunately, may call into question the achievability of complete gender equality in STEM. I believe it falls upon psychology to challenge the very definition of science, and instead incorporate a more humanistic and real approach to the discipline. Interestingly, the Extraordinary Women Engineers Project suggests a way to appeal to the nurturing quality of women, while encouraging STEM careers.

Their research has contended that women are attracted to STEM subjects after highlighting how it can make a change to people’s lives, whereas men prefer to contribute to advances in the technology itself. This, I feel, offers a happy middle ground between feminising STEM and encouraging women into the roles. I believe we must reconcile our differences, promote the genuine real-world impact of scientific research and refute the idea that science is a masculine domain. We are more than test tubes and lab coats, and the connotations of a career in science must reflect this.

Madeleine Pownall is a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Leeds.

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