How to draw more women into Stem
Cultural, structural, and conscious and unconscious bias all need to be tackled to reverse the trend
Diana Bura and Maria Louise Fufezan, from Loreto Secondary School, Balbriggan, overall winners and BT Young Scientists of the Year. Photograph: Alan Betson
Conversations around gender equity in science and maths have been intensifying in recent years. According to the Central Statistics Office, of the 118,000 people working in Stem (science, technology, engineering or mathematics) industries in Ireland, only a quarter is female. Gender equality was chosen as a fundamental issue for the UN Sustainable Goals, published in 2015. A target of adopting and strengthening policies and legislation to promote gender equality at all levels is still relevant, particularly in the sciences.
Last month the Higher Education Authority published a review of gender equality in Irish higher-education institutions. While the report addresses the broader arena of academia, it is worth focusing on mathematics, engineering, physics and computer science, subjects where there is a gross imbalance of gender from undergraduate to senior professor.
The scissors effect has long been documented in mathematics and physics subjects, whereby a progression of academic qualifications finds fewer and fewer women. Why are women under-represented in these and similar subjects? It is not ability. A number of crucial issues create this disparity. To borrow a phrase from Virginia Valian, “many molehills together make a mountain”. According to a number of reports, women are marginally less likely to win funding for their research, are more likely to have less laboratory space, generally have more teaching responsibilities and are less likely to be invited as visiting lecturers or guest speakers.
While each factor on its own may not be damaging, a culmination of these and other issues contribute to the cultural, structural, conscious and unconscious bias that add to the barriers to progression for women in the sciences.
Societal messages around these subjects may play a large role. In 2015 research was published in Science that suggested a correlation between the idea of “natural talent” and the number of women who progressed in a subject. This study investigated gender imbalances in research and surveyed academic staff and postgraduate students across a number of universities in the US. A correlation was found between the number of female PhD students in a subject and participants’ beliefs that that subject required an innate ability.
It may come as no surprise that maths featured at the extreme end of being seen to require genetic “giftedness”, followed closely by physics, computer science and engineering. (It might come as a surprise, however, that philosophy was the subject most related to an ability belief, which correlated with a low number of female PhDs.) This research suggests that there are underlying messages around women’s abilities in these subjects and that these implicit messages may impact the gender imbalance across the sciences. It is incumbent on all of us to portray the potential to succeed in any subject, at all levels of education, as due to interest, work ethic, and perseverance, not gender.
A great role model
It is important to celebrate our successful Irish female scientists, and one such woman is Sheila Tinney, who was a pioneer in mathematical physics and undertook her PhD with Nobel laureate Max Born. In 1948 she won a fellowship to the Institute for Advance Study at Princeton and, while there, worked with noted scientists such as Freeman Dyson and Richard Feynman. Tinney was one of the first four women elected to membership of the Royal Irish Academy in 1949 – women were excluded until that point – and lectured in UCD until 1978.
According to the Hunt report of 2015, “diversity supports creativity and innovation, and higher education, particularly research, is ultimately a highly creative endeavour”. The sciences depend on creativity and glimmers of ideas that emerge from in-depth understanding of the literature, rigorous research methods and collaborations with excellent colleagues and research students. Deliberately incorporating diversity in these processes will only contribute to findings generated from research groups across the country and can only benefit Ireland’s reputation as a centre for Stem.
Changing the culture of our research institutions will not negatively impact on quality but will enhance the output of our scientific research. We should work hard to ensure that the most talented women and men have opportunity to participate at all levels.
- Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin is an assistant professor in UCD’s school of mathematics and statistics