By Amy Jackson, UK Editorial Board

Since the creation of science, technology, engineering and maths, men have led the way in all things STEM. From the invention of the light bulb to doctors during the world wars, women have been very much out of the picture and despite a few notable names, the situation nowadays is not much better. But why? Through law and legislation, women are now ‘technically’ equal in education and careers, so why are so few pursuing careers in STEM?

“Girls think science is not for them.”

In my opinion, the main reason why girls are not going into science is not that they’re not good enough or because they think they’re not welcome but because they think science is ‘not for them’. Young girls are raised with the understanding that science is dominated by men, and this divide is never questioned or challenged, just accepted. But where do these ideas come from?

Personal role models

On my mother’s side, my grandfather was a structural engineer who designed bridges and railways and my grandmother was a nurse. Growing up, I always thought how cool my grandad’s job was but never really considered it as available to women, seeing the photos of him alongside all of his male colleagues. On my father’s side, my grandfather was a radio operator in the navy whereas my grandmother was a bookkeeper. I remember hearing about all of the places he got to visit and wishing that I could do something like that but knew I couldn’t because the navy was really just for men.

Although my parents and grandparents never told me that I couldn’t have these fun, exciting technology jobs, I never really considered them an option for myself.

“Without knowing it, having parents in the science sectors has meant I’ve given myself, to some extent, a personal expectation to follow in their footsteps. “

However, in my personal experience it could be argued that my family role models have encouraged me towards the sciences. With parents who studied medicine and geology respectively and a brother currently studying animal management and welfare at university, I have always seen a science subject as a very realistic and possible option for my own university degree. It is quite possible that, without knowing it, having parents in the science sectors has meant I’ve given myself, to some extent, a personal expectation to follow in their footsteps. This theory is definitely supported when looking at the chosen pathways of some of my school peers. One friend has a mother who is a swimming teacher and a father in business and has never showed any particular interest in science or maths, now hoping to study a degree in history or English. However, this theory brings into argument the nature or nurture debate, along with many other personal factors and is not always supported, so cannot be accounted as the sole root of the divide.

Industry Role Models

Past and present ‘greats’ in the STEM industry play a large role in promoting the science and technology subjects and the gender of these industry role models can significantly influence the gender stereotypes associated with these areas. Modern day industry leaders such as Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are all well known for their contribution to the industry but I would struggle to name one famous or influential female market leader from this generation. Looking to the past there have been a few well know female scientists including Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin but in Google’s list of the top 40 most famous scientists, only two of them are women. They don’t fare much better in the engineering field with only three women in the respective top 40.

Marie Curie ca. 1898 © Underwood/CORBIS

“In Google’s list of the top 40 most famous scientists, only two of them are women.”

There have been a few very influential female scientists and engineers throughout history but I think this clear lack of female role models is a key reason for the disinterest of girls in the STEM industries. With few people they can relate to and identify with to ‘follow in the footsteps’ of or work towards, there is little motivation to join the field and join the fight to break through the glass ceiling supposedly only surpassed by men.

When researching these few inspiring women, I came across an article that, firstly, shocked me but, secondly, unfortunately, confirmed my suspicions even more. Having searched google to find “famous inventors of technology”, the first webpage that came up was entitled “Fathers of Technology: 10 Men Who Invented and Innovated in Tech”. I understand that there have been many very influential male inventors over time but the fact that the primary web article on famous inventors was dedicated exclusively to men really reinforces the lack of female role models not only in science and engineering but STEM as a whole.

However, in my case I would say that this lack of notable female scientists has, in many ways, motivated me to enter and hopefully succeed in this sector. Rather than a recommendation against this field, I see this as a challenge to break stereotypes and prove that women are just as capable as men in STEM careers.

Media role models

Another big influence I have found pushing young girls away from the STEM industries is the media. Just a few weeks ago, I went to the cinema with my friends to watch the brand new Hollywood blockbuster ‘Passenger’, a film about a space ship that gets damaged while in space and two lonely passengers who have to fix the ship and save the thousands of others aboard. This film had a very small cast with only three human characters playing significant roles in the film. There were two male characters, one a pilot of the craft and the other an engineer. The third and final main character was female and she was not a scientist, a mathematician, or even a designer; she was a writer.

“When it came to re-wiring the machines, the man did it. When it came to manipulating the programs on the ship, the man did it.”

I have nothing against writers and thought that as a character, she may be portrayed as practical and capable but the most physical she got in the whole film was running laps around the ship. When it came to re-wiring the machines, the man did it. When it came to manipulating the programs on the ship, the man did it. When it came to going outside the ship to fix the all-important, life-saving, game-changing part, she was left inside to pull a lever. I understand that this is just a single character in a single film but I could not help but notice a trend in the genders of scientists, mathematician and engineers across media.

In ‘Thunderbirds’, all of the pilots and engineers are men. In ‘The Simpsons’, all of the employees at the nuclear power plant are men. In ‘Star Trek’, across all six series, women play a minimal role in any worthwhile jobs with only one female chief engineer and never a female operations officer.

Passengers: Stereotypes about STEM at the movies

As much as all of these are just characters in fictional tales, from a young age, girls develop clear gender association from all of their books, films and television that can’t help but have an influence on the way they view gender roles in STEM in the future.

“Many of these problems could easily be solved or aren’t even a problem in the first place, just a common misconception.”

To verify my findings, I asked my classmates from school for their opinion on the subject and why they themselves are not interested in STEM. As predicted, a clear majority of girls said that they felt that science industries are very much male dominated and feel they would not fit in or find a place in a technology industry. Another shared opinion was that they thought working in STEM would be too difficult. Many girls said that they find maths and science at school very challenging so don’t think they would be capable of higher education or employment in any of these sectors. One opinion that surprised me was from one girl who said that with the potential for maternity leave, she did not think a career in STEM would be flexible enough. She suggested that it could be a very demanding career that would not allow for enough maternity leave or time off that could be needed in the future. A final opinion I found from many girls not intending to pursue a career in science or maths said it was because they have no interest in it. Whether because of the teaching at school or subject as a whole, they said they find science and maths boring and would very much prefer and be more stimulated by higher education and employment in the arts such as English and Music. It could be argued that some of these reasons are unchangeable, that a natural interest in a subject cannot be influenced. However, many of these problems could easily be solved or aren’t even a problem in the first place, just a common misconception.

All-male Thunderbirds crew

School

The final and arguably most important influence on young girls’ perceptions of STEM is their own experience. Whether that be constructing marble roller coasters or calculating the change from a bag of sweets, school gives children their first taste of the STEM world. However, school not only gives the introduction to maths and science as subjects but also the first glimpse of the gender divide. Many people would argue that this divide is only natural, that without any guidance to do so, boys feel more interested by and comfortable with the more practical roles in sciences, whereas girls feel they have more ability in other subjects, such as English and art.

“School gives children their first taste of the STEM world.”

Considering this situation, it could definitely be suggested that the start of the gender divide in STEM is at school but whether or not this gives the solution to the problem is arguable. Potentially, promoting more gender equality at school would decrease the gender gap down the line in industry but it could also be suggested that this gender divide is only natural and regardless of how much you try to avoid and eliminate it, it may still arise.

My Experience

All-male Simpsons Nuclear Power Plant crew

The gender divide has definitely been apparent in my upbringing, be that through school, family or the media. For many young girls, I think it can be said that the constant reminders and confirmations of the divide has put them of pursuing a career in STEM but for me, it has had the opposite effect. Seeing the lack of women in STEM makes me want to pursue a career in this field, if anything just to prove a point. Reports and articles suggesting that women aren’t ‘wanted’ or aren’t ‘capable of making an impact’ in STEM presented themselves to me as a challenge, an incorrect assumption that needs to be proven wrong. In addition, the ‘lack of women’ pushed often in the media presents not only a challenge but also an opportunity. The inequality in many cases works in our favour in the sense that many companies would hire women in preference to men in order to try to lessen the contrast of gender inequality.

“Seeing the lack of women in STEM makes me want to pursue a career in this field, if anything just to prove a point.”

However, the one negative factor I have come across in the portrayal of STEM growing up is, unfortunately, that it’s boring. In many TV programmes and real life examples, science and technology are shown to be fun and interesting, such as the time machine in ‘Back to the Future’ and the fighter planes in ‘Thunderbirds’. However, many of the lab scientists, such as Abi in ‘NCIS’, seem to lack any creativity or outdoor fieldwork in their jobs. They appear to spend most of their time sitting at a computer with the occasional test tube surrounded by four walls, while the rest of the team are out doing the action packed, adrenaline fuelled proper jobs that really seem to make a difference.

 

The question of the STEM of this problem is one that has been asked many times over the years but unfortunately, the answer is still unclear. Whether it be a natural instinct or imposed bias, it is clear that young girls do not feel the same attraction to the STEM industries as boys and I strongly believe that role models play a big part in it. We are always told to do what we want to do and take any path we choose but it definitely feels that certain paths are presented in a much nicer, more approved light than others, be that by our parents, most admired scientists or favourite TV characters.

“We need to stop just telling young girls that they can be scientists, engineers and mathematicians but really show them that it’s possible.”

To conclude, I feel that the gender gap in STEM is unnecessary, uncontrolled and unjustified and to try to conquer it we need to stop just telling young girls that they can be scientists, engineers and mathematicians but really show them that it’s possible.