Is there an unconscious bias towards women in STEM?

For this blog, I’m so happy to share my space with guest blogger Cindy Lee, currently a senior Digital Transformation Consultant in our Sydney office. Similar to an earlier blog of mine (The curse of unconscious bias: When to own it and when to call it out), Cindy has put pen to paper (so to speak) to share some of her thoughts and views of being a woman in STEM.

I am a woman in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Over the years, my “rare” status has been observed (if only in my own thoughts), but only recently have I discovered how common my own life experiences are with other women in STEM fields, as demonstrated by the key findings in the latest “Women in Cyber Security Literature Review” report from the Australian government’s Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C).

Along my journey, there are a few incidents of bias that stick out in my mind. Whether those were incidents of unconscious or conscious bias – I’m not sure, but it’s certainly made me aware of how women in STEM are perceived:

  • Being told by my male maths teacher that I was “not bright enough” to take advanced maths
  • When visiting a university as a 17-year-old, I was turned off Electrical Engineering as a field of study, due to a lecturers’ eye-gaze being completely untoward for the duration of the tour
  • Starting my first job placement at 19 years old, I was consigned to a team of middle-aged white men, and then left on my own to figure out what to do

Over the years, I have gotten used to being the lone woman in a room full of men, but it still bothers me that so much effort goes into being heard instead of spending that effort delivering additional value!

Does better representation matter?

The PM&C research shows that increasing and retaining women in the workforce can lead to increased productivity and gaining a competitive advantage.

An excerpt from the report:

Women also provide a gender diversity for cyber security that improves performance (Loehr, 2015) as a diverse workforce is more likely to experiment, be creative and more effectively complete tasks (Percival, 2016). The low proportion of women in the field represents a lost opportunity to harness the perspectives and experiences of women in developing new solutions and approaches. True innovation requires creativity, flexibility, and out-of-the-box thinking, which may be stimulated by diversity (Mannix and Neale, 2005). Indeed, recent findings suggest that diversity is good for business; and is strongly associated with higher business revenue and profits (Herring, 2009).

The widening equality gap

So, are the stats improving? No, they are not — if anything, they’re getting worse.

BBC News recently reported that an economic monitoring group has found “the equality gap between men and women would take 100 years to close at its current rate.” In 2016 it was 83 years. Over just the last year, we have increased the timeframe by an extra 17 years before we will see true gender equality! What’s even worse, they also predicted that women will have to wait 217 years (up from 170 years in 2016) before they earn as much as men and are equally represented in the workplace.

So, what does this mean for women into STEM? Over the past two decades, there have been some efforts to draw girls to STEM fields. However, despite efforts from industry and educational bodies, recent research shows that the overall number and percentage of girls and women in STEM are decreasing. Forbes reported in 2014 that “women have seen no employment growth in STEM jobs since 2000.” Only one in seven engineers are female, and only 27% of computer science jobs are held by women.

The PM&C research, citing various sources, reports that women in Australia account for only one in four ICT graduates, and fewer than one in ten engineering graduates in Australia. This is despite accounting for 65% of domestic graduates across all subjects in 2015. And, whilst women and men have been shown to perform equally well in computer science courses at the university level, the report finds that women continue to leave the field at rates that are not correlated with lower grades or poorer performance on standardised mathematics tests.

What is being done?

Why is it so difficult to attract girls and women to study and work in STEM? And why is it so hard to retain them? Researchers and governments have dedicated a lot of time researching this area since the early 2000s.

In that time, research and recommendations have included:

But what if it is not just about the way we attract or teach.  What if it is about the way we treat women in general?

Why isn’t it enough?

When it comes to career choices, what is the push for girls to study STEM?  Despite STEM jobs being more lucrative in general, evidence suggests that women won’t be hired on equal pay and additionally have countless barriers to face as they try to progress.

If a woman enters STEM, she may need to build up armour or adopt behaviours to “fit in” within male dominated STEM fields.  When this occurs, how often will women get labelled as “aggressive” or “bossy” for simply doing their job and trying to be heard? As time progresses, how often will women get passed over for promotions and opportunities due to these labels?

Why then is it a wonder that women look around and think “it is not worth it,” choosing to leave at an opportune time? How many women do you know that have exited STEM?

STEM fields are male dominated microcosms of the society in which we live. If mistreatment of women happens in regular society (e.g. #metoo), is it a wonder that significantly male dominated fields are turning off women?  (STEM fields tend to be 70%-90% male)

So, what do we do?

As a society, we do need to do what the research says and encourage more girls into STEM. There needs to be more investment into grassroots programs to encourage girls to study maths, sciences and technology, and nurture their talents rather than restraining natural abilities.

As workers in STEM, we need to look out for women, encourage them, recognise and remove the roadblocks to their participation and success.

But as individuals, and in our daily lives, we need to treat the female population as equals.  From the start, through school, university, as they enter the workforce and progress up the ranks.


Cindy Lee headshotCindy Lee is a Senior Consultant in the Digital Transformation at DXC Consulting ANZ, she specialises in organisational change management, facilitation and business architecture. With over 15 years of tech industry experience, Cindy is passionate about creating excellent customer and employee experiences on the way to delivering tangible results for her clients.

Comments

  1. Confidence is the key to increasing one’s leadership presence and professional success. As I often tell my female clients, friends and family members, we cannot allow social standards or gender bias to influence our decisions. As a coach and a leader, I often see women playing it safe far too often. Let’s think about how this impacts you professionally.

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