Closing the gender gap in science

29.3% of the world’s researchers, professionals “engaged in the conception or creation of new knowledge”, are women. Women are 24% of the core STEM workforce in the UK and are 35% of STEM students. Women make up 39% of physical sciences students, but 19% in engineering, computing, and technology. No studies consider gender minorities in science representation.  

There has been a narrative that STEM fields are ‘masculine’ and it was therefore unsurprising they were dominated by men; however, like many occupations examined in the context of women’s historic oppression, there is no evidence to suggest women are any less suited for, or academically able, to become scientists.

Women are equally suited for, and academically able to become scientists, despite the narrative that STEM fields are masculine so are naturally male dominated which is proven untrue. Children have equal interest in science, but this decreases for girls between ages 11-14, likely due to greater exposure to stereotypes and social pressures. Studies at the University of Illinois find higher emphasis on the concept of ‘brilliance’, most common in maths and physics, is correlated with less women. This may link to media portrayal of intelligence, intelligent men are geniuses, think Sherlock Holmes, while intelligent women are hard-working, like Hermione Granger.  

The gender gap affects not only would-be scientists.  Medical studies used men as the entire sample of medical trials until the mid-20th century, leaving women’s health knowledge as extrapolation and guess work. Many women’s health issues were branded as hysteria, cited until the mid-20th century, leaving their experiences unexplored. This has left knowledge of women’s health lagging behind, a pattern mirrored for people of ethnic minorities in the western world. But this bias is not only historic. In 2016, the World Health Organization halted trials of a male contraceptive, citing side effects incompatible with commercial use. The side effects were the same as those experienced by women taking oral contraceptives, used since the 1960s. Is it acceptable for women to take this burden considered unsuitable for men? Or is it safe and ethical for women to be encouraged to use this contraception by medical professionals and sex educators in schools, given the severity of side effects? The conversation could be very different had women been represented in the medical scientists who invented contraceptives. 

However, the outlook is promising. Representation has been increasing at a growing rate since 2000, and there is a predicted ‘critical mass’ of 30% representation from which progress towards equality rapidly increases. To foster this growth, STEM Women funds inclusivity and diversity initiatives for all underrepresented groups, increased wellbeing support and increased career events are key driving factors. It should not be forgotten that the fight for women’s representation is not in isolation, and the situation is similar for many underrepresented groups from which individuals can belong to more than one. Disabled women make up only 4% of the STEM workforce, compared to 7% for disabled men and 8% for disabled women in the total workforce. Female scientists and students were 60% more likely to report adverse career effects due to COVID-19, making these measures critical in the post-COVID recovery to sustain progress. Equality is achievable in the not-distant future, but measures need to be facilitated by those in science leadership and management, 86% of which are men, to ensure these drivers are incorporated into institutions’ values, actions, and outputs.  

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Laura Taylor

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January 2022
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