As soon as you say the word feminism a lot of people get defensive. I’ll bet some of you are already feeling anxious just from the title. Generally I don’t want my blogs to get political, but the way I see it, feminism isn’t always a socio-political stance, it can sometimes just be the word we use to mean "I'm sensible".
If we define feminism as the belief that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men and that women's contributions to society are just as valuable...then it’s a shame we need to even have such a word – it’s like having a word for “I believe everyone should be allowed to drink water”; it’s something we should just assume everyone automatically thinks. So I guess I would call myself a feminist. If women are not treated with the same respect as men, not given the same opportunities as men and are not celebrated the same way men are then that's an affront to 50% of the population and needs to be rectified.
The majority of men (I’d like to believe) recognise that a society where women have equal rights and treatment is for the benefit of everyone. So why is feminism still talked about? Women are allowed to vote, get an education, get employed, testify in court, start a business etc. etc. But are there things for which they are not yet treated equally? I think unfortunately the answer is yes. The numbers vary depending on where you source them but the picture is similar in a lot of places:
29% of MPs in the UK are women
70% of minimum wage earners in the UK are women
4.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women
30% of speaking characters in the top 100 grossing films are women
29% of female actors in the top 500 grossing films wear revealing clothes (only 7% of men do)
22% of U.S. parliamentarians are women
24 states have never elected a female governor
98% of teenage girls feel under pressure to look a certain way (for boys it’s 30%)
92% of teenage girls feel they ought to lose weight.
To be clear, I don’t think there are groups of men sitting in dimly lit halls cackling and deciding “how can we suppress women today?” Maybe we're just seeing those numbers because it’s a hangover from an older society which did devalue women (or rather, only valued women for their baby-making), and we just haven’t fixed it yet? I'm not sure. I'm no sociologist. What I can talk about is the fact that you see similarly unbalanced numbers in the STEM fields.
I should point out that these issues are rather domesticated compared to how women are treated in other parts of the world. There are bigger injustices to tackle than the under-representation of female scientists, but I figure I might as well tackle the problems in my own back yard before I go on a crusade the fix the planet.
I’m also conscious of the fact that I’ll probably receive a backlash for this blog post. Some people will think I’m overreacting to the issues, some will think I’m not reacting enough. Some people will think I’m only saying it to impress women, some will think I’m writing the whole thing sarcastically to attack women. I don't know how to help you with interpretation, I can only write honestly.
What the problem might be...
13% of STEM jobs in the UK are held by women.
49% of schools in the UK send no female students to study Physics at University.
39% of year 13 Maths students are female.
8.5% of year 13 Computing Science students are female.
Physics is the 19th most popular degree choice for girls (for boys it's 4th)
There are 1.8 times as many men studying Maths at university (i.e. almost twice as many)
Is this a problem?
Some people might argue that by highlighting women as "missing" from STEM I am, indirectly, being anti-feminist. After all, if men and women are equal then a workforce of men is equal to a workforce of women. Why am I singling women out?
Well here’s the thing: women and men are equally valuable but they aren’t biologically identical. Men and women are anatomically, hormonally and neurologically different so treating both sexes identically is a recipe for disaster. Giving both sexes the same opportunities however might lead to really good things.
If you study differences between men and women’s brains you tend to get one of two approaches. Either you hear that men are from Mars and women from Venus (i.e. utterly different) or you hear that men and women are the same in every respect and the idea of masculine and feminine thought is a social construct. The reality is far closer to the second option; men and women’s brains are, on the whole, the same. But there are subtle differences.
These differences don’t affect key aspects of cognition like memory, pattern recognition, synthesis, puzzle solving etc. but they do present some minor variations in how men and women approach problems. That means the more women you have working in STEM the more variety of thought you have, which has to be a good thing.
But are those numbers above like that because women are being discouraged from STEM or are they like that because women are naturally less likely to choose it? If it's the former then we have a problem we can fix, if it's the latter then we still have a problem but it's one that we have to just accept and move on with.
What if women just don’t want to study STEM?
Perhaps the reason so few women choose STEM is simply because they aren’t interested. If that’s genuinely the case then fine, we’ll soldier on with the gender divide. Women should have the right to choose not to go into the STEM subjects. I suppose what I’m interested in is the fact that very few women go into STEM subjects when they are allowed to! Why is that happening? I honestly don't know but I'm starting to suspect that a number of factors play into it,
A female student of mine recently told me a story about an exchange she had with an engineer while looking at University courses. She expressed an interest in engineering and he literally responded with “You can’t do engineering right because you’re a girl.”
Mainly I'm curious how this guy managed to survive the meteor impact which got rid of the other dinosaurs. Apparently rampant sexism does still exist in the STEM community, but I’d like to think (perhaps I’m naïve) that it’s not usually as flagrant. I would like to believe that most women aren’t told “you can’t study this subject” and that if they are told that, they don’t believe it. But I have to wonder how many women avoid STEM because they know they'd be an outsider?
Unfortunately this makes the problem harder to combat because it’s harder to pin it down a societal influence, but I can give some examples. Do you remember that episode of The Simpsons where Lisa is campaigning against Malibu Stacy dolls promoting gender stereotypes? Did you know that’s based on a true story?
In 1992, Mattel released Teen-Talk Barbie. Two of the messages some Teen-Talk Barbie dolls said were: “Will we ever have enough clothes?” and “Math class is tough.” That’s a lot of little girls whose toys – allegedly representing how teenagers talk – saying girls value clothes and find math difficult.
I’m sure many girls grew up to hate maths and love clothes on their own. But how many got it in their heads “that’s what a teenage girl is supposed to say and think” and ended up conforming to a cultural role? I should point out that Mattel did recall the dolls, but it’s the fact that nobody found a problem with the messages before release which worries me.
The US department of education found that girls who have a strong “self concept” of themselves in Science are more likely to choose it as a career. Tell kindergarten girls they aren’t suited to STEM however and it might be harder to persuade them otherwise when they’re in high school. I'm singling Barbie out, but there might be other ways we unconsciously bias younger girls against STEM.
If we were to put a huge push on getting girls into STEM, we might find that most of them don’t choose it after all. If so then fine, we'd just have to accept it. But at least we'd know for sure. The key issue is that women are given the freedom to choose fairly.
If the gender divide in STEM is a consequence of natural inclination then I guess we'll just have to swallow that pill, but if it's a cultural thing then we'd better get right on it, because STEM is suffering! So, let's say, for the sake of example, that it is about culture. If that does turn out to be the case...
How do we solve it?
Complaining about things is necessary, but if you don’t suggest solutions, it’s just a whinge. I also think it’s important to keep an optimistic outlook (when the world looks unpleasant, try to believe it can be better). I’m not claiming I’ll fix the world with my internet blog, but I would like to suggest some practical ideas for your consideration and discussion. These are in no particular order of importance.
Support Primary School Teachers with STEM training
A 2015 report by Brunel University found that a third of Primary school teachers don’t feel confident teaching Science. Primary school teachers are usually children’s first contact with STEM education and around 87% of them are women. That means a significant number of children are seeing a woman who doesn’t feel confident in STEM.
This is not the primary school teachers' fault at all. Primary school teachers are amazing and I couldn’t do their job. But I know if I’m teaching a subject I’m less confident with, it comes across in the lesson, kids pick up on it and the lesson doesn’t go as well.
So we need to start offering more training for primary school teachers who don’t feel as confident in STEM. Give them lesson ideas, resources, send them to workshops, train them how to do interesting demos, run practical activities and extend kids’ scientific thinking. Provide primary schools with engaging Science books and make sure girls and boys get access to them. Send the message early on that women can be confident in STEM, the same as boys.
More Programs to support women in STEM and more exposure for those that exist
The Athena Swan Charter (as an example) is a group dedicated to championing and promoting women’s careers in STEM. They defend women who feel they’ve been unfairly treated and reward institutions who are supportive of women’s issues. We need more attention given to such programs.
I’m, not necessarily saying government should fund these programs (although I think it would help) but I think public recognition and acknowledgement would go a long way. These organisations do need more funding and they need more exposure in the media. Give them enough funding to make television adverts maybe? Get some celebrity endorsement to raise the profile. The more people are aware of programs like Athena Swan, the more they are funded and the more capability they have to make changes.
Representation of female Scientists in the media
At the moment, a lot of Scientists depicted in TV and movies are men. The Big Bang Theory has, in fairness, introduced two female characters who are scientists, but only several seasons in…and they aren’t really good depictions of Scientists (just like the guys in fact). Generally Scientists in the media are portrayed as caricatures (boffins/nerds/lunatics) but as such they are usually male.
There have been some outstanding female Scientist characters in recent sci-fi movies though, Gravity, Interstellar, and Sunshine all feature well written, confident, intelligent female Scientists who aren’t there to look attractive and be romantic foils for the men. It’s definitely a promising sign.
To me one of the best Scientist characters ever (one of the characters who really made me realise what it is to think like a Scientist) was Ellie Arroway from Contact. I saw the film when I was about 13 years old and read the book many years later, both times I found her inspiring. A woman inspiring a boy to think Science is cool? Shock horror.
Arroway is evidence-driven, skeptical, confident and isn’t defined as the romantic interest of a man. She is fierce, brilliant, ingenius and stands up for facts when everyone else is looking for a political angle.
One of these women is a confidently written independent, intelligent scientist, one of them is Bernadette from The Big Bang Theory dressed in a nightie. Good luck telling them apart!
Also, I’ll just say it: a female doctor in Doctor Who would be great. The doctor is often a very Scientifically minded character. He solves problems through thinking, analysing evidence, using prior knowledge and experimenting. At the moment, his companions are female, so let’s try flipping it. Let’s have a female critical-thinker solving her way through adventures. And let’s not worry too much about whether men will find her pretty. Let’s worry about whether men and women will find her inspiring.
Include current Science in our textbooks and syllabuses
We have to teach children the basic laws of Science and they were discovered over the past few centuries – largely by men. Girls in school hear the names of endless dudes doing great things and might get the unconscious impression that this is a subject for guys (as opposed to one which was historically only studied by guys). Usually Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin get a cursory mention but that’s it.
There is a simple fix for this. Start including up-to-date Scientific discoveries in the syllabus and textbooks. Take astronomy for instance. Starting with people like Annie Jump Cannon and Henrietta Leavitt, astronomy is full of pioneering female names. Why not teach kids about Dark Matter and Vera Rubin? Why not teach them about Carolyn Porco, one of the most widely respected and listened-to Scientists in the world today? Or how about teaching older students about Emmy Noether (one of my all-time favourite scientists) or Chien Shiung Wu and what they did for theoretical physics?
Sure, we have to teach pupils about the genius of Charles Darwin, but let’s extend that to the courageous fieldwork of Jane Goodall. Science is full of inspirational people with inspirational stories and a lot of them are currently happening with female names. Science education does need to include the history and the basics, but there’s a lot of important Science happening right now in our lifetimes. And guess what, a lot of it’s being done by women!
Men need to make an effort
I’ll be brief on this one. Women can easily promote the message that Science is for women…by being a woman. Men need to work a little harder to emphasise the role of women in Science. I’m not saying male Science teachers need to have the name of some great female pioneer thrown into every lesson at random. I’m just saying be mindful that you’re a man in a male-dominated field, with a high male uptake and a lot of girls automatically lacking confidence in it. Just…be aware of that.
There are other things which could and should be done to solve this problem. I’ve ignored outright sexism in the lab because that’s easier to spot and other people write about it better. Obviously men shouldn’t make misogynistic comments, harass women sexually or only value them for their looks…duh.
I genuinely believe the best thing for civilization is Scientific education for all. So let’s get more girls to feel they have a shot at getting into Science because it will be good for Science itself and, therefore, the human race…which contains both women and men.
Solvay conference recolourised: Sanna Dullaway
What feminism is: Blended with Hope
Angry-looking George Carlin: Pop Matters
Teen-Talk Barbie: Divine Caroline
Ellie Arroway: Reel Life Wisdom
Bernadette from The Big Bang Theory: Worn on TV
Carolyn Porco: TED
Stick figures of people doing math: Randall Munroe
I love science, let me tell you why.