“You can’t choose something if you are not aware that it exists.” With this simple and resounding phrase, Angela Paloma Martín, a political advisor and expert on women's leadership and gender communication, referred to the lack of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) jobs during the presentation of the study Wanted: Female engineers, physicists and technologists. Why are not there more STEM women?
The report, coordinated by Milagros Sáinz — director of the Gender and ICT Research Group of the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) of Universitat Oberta de Catalunya — tries to answer many of the questions that arise when looking at gender inequality in scientific professions.
Why do women fall by the wayside and fail to get promoted at work? Why aren’t there more women in STEM? Why are they less interested in technology or pure science and more on biology and health sciences? Sáinz, during the event hosted at Espacio Fundación Telefónica, explained that the study was carried out with a sample of female high school students —410—, female university students pursuing STEM degrees —11— and female professionals in that field with at least 5 years of professional career — 21—.
One of the main findings of High school interviews was that young people think that STEM careers are for very intelligent people; they link computer science and engineering to people with personality issues, with poor social skills and who even smell bad —in the case of programmers— and consider that engineers are people with a very formal physical appearance. Looks do matter for teens and the researcher stressed that "if young people cannot relate to this type of people, logically, they won’t choose this type of careers."
Sáinz also explained that, while the study was being prepared, "the lack of female role models" was notable. The interviewed architects, for example, confessed that they learnt about who world-class architect Zaha Hadid was outside the classroom, because nobody had mentioned her while they were studying. "The contributions of women in these areas are grossly overlooked," said Sáinz.
For Ángela Paloma Martín, visibility is crucial. “In Africa, women living in camps say they want to be cops when they grow up. Why? Because where women in Gambia work professionally is in the police corps. What else are they going to answer if that’s all they see?" And he added: “If these things aren’t being taught to children, we have a fundamental mistake that keeps women from pursuing scientific careers.”
David Tomás, Sonsoles Ónega, Milagros Sáinz and Ángela Paloma Marín.
Engineer David Tomás, co-founder of Cyberclick, a digital marketing company, also stressed the impact of education and made reference to a study, published in Science , which indicates that by age six start seeing themselves as being less brilliant than boys. At age 5, boys and girls did not answer that when asked the same question, and one year later, they change their mind and boys feel more intelligent and girls less. This change is caused by the environment —parents, teachers, the media— which send a message that resonates deeply with children.” Tomás noted that this message, negative for girls, “has a very strong impact on their professional development. If when you’re 6 or 7 you think you’re not as brilliant as a boy, you're probably going to think that you’re not as good at math, and that will make it very difficult for you to pursue a career in STEM.”
To change this situation, Ángela Paloma Martín advocated from not focusing solely on complaining: “It is an error to protest the lack of women in science by complaining, and I don’t believe either in attacking as a way of voicing disconformity.” The advisor said that “we need to solve the issue working on education, social culture and political action.” Researcher Sáinz, called for a “shift in stereotypes at educational, business and media levels. And also, for keeping female students pursuing a STEM degree from giving up, fostering “less aggressive atmospheres in work teams, places where they do not feel alone.”