Women in STEM and what we can do to #Break the Bias

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“We need both commitment from both sides— both men and women— because gender equality is not only a women’s issue,” said Johanna Karanko, the Consul General of Finland in Hong Kong. Activist Beth Kong covers the ‘Europe Talks are [Women] Talks’, programme hosted by the CG of France in Hong Kong, and discusses ways that we can help to #BreakTheBias

Featured image: Screenshot of event via Consulate-General of France in HK Facebook Page

International Women’s Day is a day to commemorate womanhood and the achievements – social, economic, cultural, and political – of women all around the globe. In honour of this year’s theme #BreakTheBias, the Consulate General of France gathered officials, students and professionals to engage in an hour-long online programme ‘Europe Talks Are [Women] Talks’, focusing on the significant areas of women in Europe.

While the EU and its member states have expressed their political and legal commitment to the basis of gender parity (i.e., the legislative proposal on binding pay transparency measures adopted by the European Commission in 2021), women remain noticeably under-represented. Gender disparity is still rife and progress is slow, fragmented, and uneven across Europe.

According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2021, The COVID-19 crisis has escalated automation and digitalisation, accelerating labour market disruption. Due to increasing occupational gender segregation, data indicates that gender parity in the future of jobs would face major obstacles. Only two of the eight tracked “jobs of tomorrow” clusters (People & Culture and Content Production) have achieved gender parity, revealing gender gap is more likely to continue in the remaining six sectors and there is a severe under representation of women. 

Gender gaps are also present in sectors that demand disruptive technology. For example, women make up only 14% of the workforce in Cloud Computing; 20% in engineering; and 32% in Data and AI. In terms of education, as stated in the UNESCO Science Report 2021, only 28% of tertiary graduates are in engineering and 40% of those are in computer science, which depicts a lack of equal opportunity for women in STEM education. Such data shows a strong male dominance in natural scientific and technical fields and strenuous efforts are needed to address and alleviate the gender imbalance in the STEM field. 

‘Jobs of Tomorrow’ and Female Representation. Source: Global Gender Gap Report

Yet a lingering question remains. Why is there such a gender gap in science-related education and occupations? There are some possible causes for such disparity between the genders and understanding its causes is prominent in tackling the issue.

Gender Stereotypes: Research conducted by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) found that despite significant increases in participation and performance in STEM disciplines by girls and women over the previous few decades, negative perceptions about their ability in mathematics and science persist. There are two common stereotypes: girls are not as adept at maths as boys are, and scientific work is better suited to boys and men. Children are aware of prejudices as early as primary school and can express stereotypical attitudes about which science courses are appropriate for women and men. Furthermore, it has been discovered that girls and young women are aware of, and are negatively influenced by, the traditional picture of a scientist as a man. Negative prejudices about women exist, however they are largely unsaid.

Male-Dominated Cultures: As the number of women in STEM education and workforce are far less than that of men, these fields tend to perpetuate rigid, restrictive, macho cultures that are discouraging and unappealing to women and other minorities. Such culture fosters ‘stereotypes of the field that are incompatible with the way that many women see themselves’ and negative stereotypes about women’s abilities. For instance, boys are more gifted than girls and Maths is perceived and portrayed as a gift, rather than a developed ability, by the media and teachers.

Lack of role models: Mentorship and role models are extremely prominent for anyone pursuing a degree and career or looking to develop skills in certain areas. Young women have fewer role models to inspire their interest in STEM fields as there are limited examples of female scientists and engineers in books, media and popular culture. 

Reducing bias against women in science-related fields is a society-wide endeavour, the best long-term strategy for attaining this goal is to change cultural stereotypes that cause this gender disparity. As technology and innovation are rapidly growing nowadays, digitalisation not only gives women more opportunities but also sets challenges for the advancement of gender equality. To bridge the digital divide between the genders and empower women, Johanna Karanko, the Consul General of Finland in Hong Kong, emphasised more access and digital skills are needed to be equally provided to all genders, such as the basis of coding and artificial intelligence. “We need both commitment from both sides— both men and women— because gender equality is not only a women’s issue,” she added.

CG Johanna Karanko. Source: Yle.fi

While ensuring a diverse and talented STEM workforce for all genders, purging the gendered language in job listing is also the key to removing such gender bias. Without realising it, we all use language that is subtly ‘gender-coded’. Society has certain expectations and perceptions of what we do and how different genders differ, and this seeps into the daily language we use. There has been notable research around language that tends to be more subconsciously attractive to men rather than women in job advertisements. For instance, words such as ‘competitive’ or ‘dominant’ are masculine-coded, while words such as ‘support’, and ‘interpersonal’ are feminine-coded. President of the French Foreign Trade Advisors Marie-Hélène Prévot advised human resource managers to change the image of different jobs, particularly the ones that seem to be ultra-masculine. But if gendered wording is unconscious, how can one make sure the job listings are appealing to all genders? 

Here are a few tips for recruiters and other hiring professionals:

  • Educate the employees about unconscious gender discrimination with anti-bias training
  • Set up a Gender Diverse Panel to audit job listings
  • Utilise and leverage technology to check for linguistic gender-coding, such as the online Gender Decoder for Job Ads

Furthermore, as individuals, we can rediscover biographies of remarkable historical figures in women’s history. Reading books about successful women in the past, whether they have contributed in specifically fighting for women’s rights or not, is important as we should recognise the achievements of women in all facets of life – science, social, politics, literature, art, sports, medicine. This helps us learn who we are, as well as our own history, our power and dream; and development impacts the development of self-respect and new opportunities for young women.

Breaking the bias of centuries does not happen with a hashtag. This is just the beginning of a dialogue. The only way to break the bias is to change our long-instilled gender perceptions and the systemic fault lines and crevices. With the commitment to being a part of the change; actively working towards breaking prejudice in the workplace; and allowing more women to partake in male-dominated industries, all of us— both men and women— can all create an impartial workplace underpinned by diversity, equity and inclusivity.