Originally Published: June 24th, 2015
26% of computing jobs in the US are held by women. But that’s not the full story – pick a slice of the sector from across the globe and you will see women carving a space for themselves.omen are notoriously under-represented in Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are male tech pioneers who trip off the tongue, while a measly
The experience of women varies by country and the wealth or liberalism of a nation doesn’t necessarily correspond to women’s achievements in the sector. So how does UK and US diversity in Stem compare with other global regions?
When it comes to maths, the UK lags behind. It falls in 26th place out of 65 countries for gender equality in the OECD’s latest survey. The general conclusion was that “girls feel less motivated to learn maths and have less confidence in their abilities than boys”. The gender gap is also pronounced at the top of the academic scale and in work. One study found 42% of maths undergraduates are female, yet only 6% of maths professors are women.
A woman defying this trend is Dr Eugenia Cheng, senior lecturer in mathematics at the University of Sheffield. Cheng says a lack of confidence could be responsible for the drop-off in women pursuing maths post-degree. “I’ll often get a lot of female students saying ‘I don’t understand anything; I’m much worse at this than everyone else’.” But less confident female students often score higher marks than their more self-assured male peers, she says.
Cheng tries to encourage her tentative female students. “There’s often one – dare I say it – male student, who will be loud and shout things out a lot. And you have to take care to show that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re good at maths.”
Another way to help young women develop confidence in Stem studies is by celebrating successful women in the field. “Visibility of women in senior roles in science helps to normalise it in young women’s minds,” says Professor Anne Glover, vice-principal at University of Aberdeen and the first chief scientific adviser to the European Commission.
In the US, only 26% of computing jobs are held by women. Cultural attitudes there have a significant influence on the number of women in Stem careers. A recent study found that rather than too few girls opting to study scientific subjects or women forgoing careers to care for their children, the biggest cause of gender imbalance in Stem is cultural. Women feel the need to straddle a thin line between being masculine enough to fit in with the culture and feminine enough to not appear pushy.
Women making a noise about the cultural bias in Stem is also effective. Ellen Pao may have lost a high-profile gender discrimination lawsuit against her former employer, but in the process she highlighted the lack of women in the most powerful positions in Silicon Valley. The lawsuit, and the resulting media coverage, is said to have encouraged venture capital firms to address the gender imbalance. In the weeks following the court ruling, former Twitter and Facebook employees similarly filed gender discrimination lawsuits.
Technology firms in India have a better female to male staff ratio than the tech giants of Silicon Valley. In his book Geek Sublime, Vikram Chandra points out that 30% of programmers in India are female compared with 21% in the US.
Female role models could be having a positive influence. Kumud Srinivasan offers a positive example of an Indian women excelling in technology. President of Intel India and chairperson of the board of governors of the National Institute of Technology-Trichy, Srinivasan offers an insight into the relatively high proportion of women in technology roles in India. “There have been focused efforts by the government, industry and academia towards attracting and retaining girls and women in Stem,” she says.
She also points to Chandra’s book in which he describes “the machismo of tech geeks in the US” and says that it’s something that appears to be absent in India. “It may well be the reason behind the higher proportion [of women in IT] here,” Srinivasan says.
While the number of women in Stem in many countries can be disheartening, there are some bright spots where progress can be seen. Latin America, for example, presented some positive achievements in a recent Unesco report – 45% of scientific researchers in Latin America are women, putting the region ahead of the global average of 29%.
Alicia Kowaltowski is a professor of biochemistry at the University of São Paulo. She says the recent development of six-month paid maternity leave for women, including graduates and postdoc researchers, has helped. She adds: “Our pay comes fully from the universities, so missing a grant deadline due to raising a family will not decrease your salary. To me, the situation of women in the US, who mostly don’t have paid maternity leave and where childcare costs half a postdoc’s salary, is unfathomable.”
Kowaltowski believes female role models are important. “There are many women scientists who frequently appear in the media here. High-level awards for female scientists help [get] the word out about these women” she says.
“It is an irony that in countries where a science career is seen as lower status, female representation is higher,” she adds, connecting this with the high gender imbalance in the UK. She points out that there are more successful female astronomers in Brazil than in the UK.
It seems that a change in cultural perceptions is crucial to encourage girls and women to pursue Stem careers. “We need it to be seen as something very normal for a woman to embark upon a career in science, not a major challenge,” Glover says.
Read the original article from The Guardian here: