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Simply Into Science: How To Tear Down STEM's Gender Wall

One study says it will take at least 100 years to bridge the global gender gap. And 217 years to close the pay gap. But we can do something now.

Time for stronger female presence in STEM fields
Time for stronger female presence in STEM fields
Ersilia Vaudo Scarpetta

"Simplicity is the most difficult thing to secure in this world; it is the last limit of experience and the last effort of genius' — George Sand

PARIS — Five hundred pounds sterling a year and a room of her own. According to Virginia Woolf, that's all a woman needed in order to write, and to realize her potential in a world dominated by men. In other words, a woman's intellectual freedom depends on her economic independence, and her creativity depends on her intellectual freedom. Privacy is the necessary condition for her individuality and an equilibrium between her personal life and her work. Simple, yes, but not easy.

It was 1928 when Woolf described this formula during one of her lectures at the women-only colleges of Cambridge. That was the same year that voting rights were granted to all British women, yet it took another 19 years for Cambridge to recognize the equality of the degrees it awarded to men and women. What Nelson Mandela later deemed the most powerful weapon for those seeking to change the world — access to education — was now irreversibly extended to women.

If we look at the numbers, education is the field where progress towards gender equality has been the most impressive. Young women entering the labor market today are more educated than their male counterparts, making up 57% of all college graduates in the developed nations of the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development). Women perform better academically, study more, and finish their studies in greater numbers than men do. We could naturally deduce that this dynamic would be pervasive in life after college, but it isn't. After graduation begins a process that disperses the talents and skills of women, and it grows worse at every stage of life.

Here are some statistics: Only 59% of Italian women with college degrees find a job after graduation, compared to 65% of men. The gap widens with the passage of time, and women find it harder to pursue the same career opportunities available to men. Women earn less money than men who hold the same positions and possess the same qualifications. Women rarely become managers or CEOs: Only 27% of managers in Italy are women, compared to 29% in Germany and 32% in France.

The mysterious relationship between life and science lends itself to a seductive need for discovery.

There is a growing loss of talented women at every rung of the career ladder, and the path to gender equality is an uphill climb. The World Economic Forum estimates that it will take at least 100 years to bridge the global gender gap at the current pace of progress — and a whopping 217 years to close the pay gap.

Being a part of this half of the world and feeling the accumulated weight of social and historic conditions makes one more aware of the forces holding women back. Despite the slow rate of progress achieved so far, the growth of the critical mass of college-educated women represents a powerful impulse towards change.

A reminder of both the limits and possibilities came Tuesday, with the announcement that one of the three researchers chosen for the Nobel Prize in Physics was Canada's Donna Strickland, the first woman to win the prize in 55 years.

This dynamic could be given a further push if women had a stronger presence in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). This would give rise to a profound and irreversible revolution, a pervasive and enduring change that would subvert the current equilibrium and allow women to definitively stake their claim in the places where we imagine and construct our collective future.

Two centuries ago, Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, the first science fiction novel the world had ever seen. Dr. Frankenstein challenged nature with his dangerous activities, eventually losing control of the horrible creature he created. Shelley was just 18 when she wrote that book, driven by her deep interest in all things scientific. Even with its inherent dangers, the mysterious relationship between life and science, between humanity and technology, lends itself to a seductive need for discovery.

So why are there so few women today who choose to study science and technology? It's certainly not due to an intrinsic lack of capacity. A study recently published in Nature magazine revealed there was no gender disparity in quantitative and mathematical ability in children aged between six months and 8 years. The differences begin to emerge later, primarily due to social and cultural factors.

While boys and girls generally achieve the same scores in science and math, it's the former that tend to dream of becoming scientists, engineers, or IT professionals. Women make up only 39% of STEM graduates in OECD countries, representing a minority of physics and engineering students. Even fewer women — just 7% of all STEM students — study information technology and communications.

There is hope outside Europe: In India, the number of women with IT degrees has risen to match that of their male counterparts. Indonesia is not far behind.

Women at work in a lab at Akanksha Hospital & Research Centre in Gujarat, India — Photo: Subhash Sharma

Of course, the career prospects for a woman with a STEM degree aren't encouraging, to say the least. There are a number of invisible barriers that are difficult to overcome: Only 17% of scientists earning over 80,000 euros ($92,600) a year are women. Women are listed as the primary authors in just over a fifth of scientific research articles. Only 20% of peer reviewers are women, and that number falls to 15% in editorial boards where the reviewers are paid.

Things seem better in the digital world, where the competence of women is valued and amplified. While women earn less than men with the same qualifications in almost every other sector of the economy, women in the male-dominated IT and digital professions actually earn more than their male colleagues.

This trajectory begins to diverge around age 15

Rational considerations, like asking what kind of life she wants in the future, play an important role in determining a woman's decision to study a particular subject. This trajectory begins to diverge between boys and girls around age 15. According to an OECD report, there are essentially two factors that influence this decision: the student's self-appraisal of their own abilities and chances of success, and their attitude towards science and scientific professions. A young person's self-confidence and perception of their own identity are shaped by the social context in which they live.

Stereotypes about women and their perceived inability to succeed in STEM fields have played an important role in discouraging young women to study these disciplines, leading to a loss of the very talent that industrialized countries need to build a sustainable economic future.

We should ask ourselves if this has created a vicious cycle, where girls are conditioned against technical and scientific degrees despite their academic excellence because they're told that engineering is dry, that physics is difficult, and that IT is boring.

Automation is transforming our society, and this will most probably influence the way we teach. There are ever fewer tasks that robots cannot perform, and the future of the labor market will depend on other abilities that cannot be automated. The future rests with people who can combine their technical proficiency with strong interpersonal skills, creativity, and interdisciplinary thought.

As some countries have already realized, the education of future generations will have to take this new world into account. These students will have to become "Renaissance" men and women who can transcend humanism and science.

The German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz once asked, "why is there something rather than nothing?" He added that nothing is simpler and easier than something. It is our capacity to ask questions that makes us human: our unavoidable desire for knowledge, to grasp what escapes and transcends us in this vast and cold universe where we are little more than an instant in time. Pursuing studies in STEM is an opportunity for an extraordinary intellectual experience and the sensation of pushing our minds to go where we have never been. It's the wonder of discovery and the excitement of the impossible becoming real.

Science needs more women. Women will be empowered through science, and science will make it possible to pass the point of no return in the quest for gender equality. Occam's razor, a bedrock of scientific thought, is the principle that the simplest solution is also the right one. A future founded on the premise of greater equality and inclusion is definitely the right solution. It's also deceptively simple.

An extended Italian version of this article was originally published in Wired Italia.

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