Gender Equality in STEM

A 50:50 gender mix of scientists will not necessarily help cure illness, preserve and regenerate our natural environment or alleviate our fossil fuel dependency.  Getting the best candidates just might.

Having read about the crazy career suicide of Nobel Prize winning scientist Tim Hunt (Tim Hunt Observer Interview) and suffered through a dreary hour of BBC’s Question Time, I decided to address some issues regarding the prevalence of women in science and equality in general, from my perspective and experience.

I am constantly hearing of our need to ‘get more girls into science’.  I would argue that this statement is flawed as it is inherently sexist and gender specific.  Part of my job is to promote science to all.  The student’s gender is irrelevant.  In my experience, the imbalance is far more localised than is portrayed.  This year, I have six students who have applied to study Chemistry at university.  All great students who could contribute to the field and make a difference – I have helped ‘get them into science’ (or at least not put them off).  I’m really pleased that they have chosen to study something ‘less fashionable’.  Five of them are female.  I didn’t even notice that outwith the searchlight of this argument.  It isn’t significant or, in my experience, unusual.

Looking slightly more broadly at the uptake of Chemistry to Baccalaureate level, boys do not dominate.  Taking this year’s leaving cohort as an example, I have one class of 25 students, of whom nine are boys.  I have another class of 16 students, of whom seven are boys.  And yet, nobody tells me I have to get more boys into science.  Isn’t a 50:50 ratio the Holy Grail of equality?  Well, no, it is not.  Equality does not always manifest itself in this way.  The problem, as with The Matrix, is choice.

In one of the links below, you can watch the European Commission’s advert to promote science to girls.  They decided to do that using an advert promoting makeup, shoes and accessories – all the things a good scientist needs to be into.  ‘Science: It’s a Girl Thing’ was the tagline.  I was asked if I would help out with the promotion of the initiative but I felt that, as a male teacher and scientist, I’d be sending out the wrong message to any boys thinking of pursuing a career in science, implying it was not for them and really ‘a girl thing’.

Another window into the world of discrimination against young men is the HeadStart programme.  It runs STEM courses in universities for school students during the summer.  ‘Great, what’s not to like?  Where can I apply?  Oh, I won’t be accepted because I’m a boy?  But I really like science, I’m good at it and I want to prove to prospective universities that I have researched this choice further and have done something about it and that I’d be a strong candidate for their competitive courses.  Really, I have to be a girl?  Isn’t that discrimination?’

Even harking back to my undergraduate Honours year in ’99/’00, we boys were in the minority.  We were outnumbered by more than two to one.  We loved it.  It was a workable ratio.  Scarcity and rarity inflates the value of a commodity after all.  However I was also aware enough to know that I might be going up against these students for jobs months later.  Did I feel intimidated by the number of women I would be up against? No.  Were some of them probably going to interview better and have more knowledge than me? Probably.  Would some of them come across worse than me? Again, probably.  I based all of these conclusions on their ability, not their gender.

Later in life, when I decided to become a teacher, I was encouraged to get into Primary Education because I’d be promoted more quickly because I’m a man.  Not because of my qualities but because of my gender.  I’m not disagreeing that younger children do sometimes need to see positive male role-models, in the same way that many need to see positive female role-models.  However, that would lead to society needing to trust the professional motivation of the male Nursery Teacher and not questioning his authenticity or having him justify his appropriateness for the job.

That should not be leading to bandwagonesque cries of how we need more men teaching in Primary School.  No, we need more good teachers in Primary School: gender is not relevant.  That ‘positive discrimination’ – an oxymoron in this sense if ever there was one – is unfair.

Positive discrimination in the job market can lead to tokenism and resentment.  This only serves to widen any divide.  The way to tackle this (if we agree it needs tackled in the first place) is to advertise Primary Teaching using men or careers in science using women – not highlighting their gender but sending out a message of validation.  Nevertheless, the principle that ‘the best candidate for the job should get the job’ should always prevail.  How one determines that is up for discussion but, again, gender (like race, age, religion, sexual orientation etc) should not be relevant.

What is unfair is when people perform the same job to the same ability and are paid differently.  There is undoubtedly a gender divide here that cannot be conveniently dismissed as the result of career breaks for maternity leave.  The difficulty in addressing this lies in regulating the Private Sector.   In Public Sector jobs, this is generally regulated.  The difficulty in the Private Sector is that the disparity is usually most marked at the executive end of the workforce.  These jobs are sometimes (not always) afforded to people of privilege by people of privilege and underhand cronyism takes place.

Often (but not always), where there is significant inherited wealth, there is the perpetuation of the values that have generated and sustained that wealth, placing women as peripheral figures professionally fulfilling other important roles in the family.  While women’s opportunities and rights have increased enormously, they are likely to continue to be under-represented in the world of ‘Old Tory Man’ which will continue to perpetuate disparity in earnings as the wealthy try to preserve the status quo.

That the majority of linguists are female, engineers are male or teachers are female is not inherently problematic as long as the same choices and opportunities exist for all.  The only barrier should be ability, not gender, and those placing the emphasis on recruitment on the latter are doing a disservice to the profession they allegedly represent.  A 50:50 gender mix of scientists will not necessarily help cure illness, preserve and regenerate our natural environment or alleviate our fossil fuel dependency.  Getting the best candidates just might.


HeadStart Website