How gender stereotypes affect science and technology

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The last article of ICT4Life blog is dedicated to a cross-cutting topic, which is particularly relevant in the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. I am referring to gender stereotypes, a stigma pervading our cultures, some more than others, overall affecting the life of millions of men and women, living in the European Union.

We could all contribute to fight this stigma. How? Talking about it! And why not, bringing on the table the example of real people, that followed a path non-compliant with these ancient stereotypes. Successful people!

As I just wrote, gender stereotypes refer to both sexes, heritage of a way of thinking that leads people to perceive some educational and professional paths tailored only for men or only for women. This is confirmed by the fact that, according to the perceptions but also the statistics, it is more common to associate men to the so-called STEM, and women to EHM (education, health and welfare) fields.

If you were to picture an astronaut, whom would you picture first, a man or a woman? What happens if you do the same exercise with a kindergarten teacher? No matter how open-minded we are, no matter which origins, backgrounds and experiences we have, no matter in which country we live, stereotypes and unconscious biases are affecting our perceptions. Yet, stereotypes often bring us to make distorted evaluation, and in the worst scenario to bad choices.

As partner of the ICT4Life consortium, I had the privilege of working with many talented women, all providing added-value and crucial for the achievements of the project results. I must admit that my female colleagues with a STEM background, made me curious about their academic and professional paths, and it led me to discover further about their experiences and struggles in male-dominated domains.

Mirela Popa (Postdoctoral Researcher at Maastricht University) and Eloisa Vargiu (Manager of Integrated Continuous Care research line at EURECAT – Centre Tecnòlogic de Catalunya), respectively a computer scientist and an electronic engineer, shared their experience while providing advice to young generations.

Mirela talked about her math male teacher at the high school who made a statement about women being less capable than men. “It felt so wrong to judge us based on stereotypes”. She got upset and guess what? She studied very hard for math, completing extra books, apart for the required ones, and at the end of the fourth year the same teacher had to admit that he was wrong. “Fortunately, this is just an example, but I imagine if more teachers act this way, they discourage women from following certain paths, which is wrong”. Mirela added also “We should never tell our children or students that they cannot achieve something, instead we should always motivate and encourage them to do what they like, no matter their gender, social or economic situation”.

Driven attitude and determination were crucial for Eloisa as well, at the moment of deciding on her academic path and leisure activities. Despite her humanistic studies in high school and surprisingly to her parents, convinced of her love for writing and reading, she opted for electronic and computer engineering. She was extremely good in maths and loved playing football in her free time, rather than crochet work. She kind of received a girlish education, but her family always supported her due to her strong character and being aware of her talent: “I decide for my own, and you cannot force me to do what I do not like to do or to be who I do not want to be”, she says. These ladies had – and still have – clear in mind in which direction to go. It seems to me that competence could be a good way to fight against stereotypes. But encouragement is needed to exploit natural capabilities.

Corroborating the statistics, Mirela and Eloisa attended classes at the university where male/female ratio participation was considerably unbalanced. They both preserve good memories of those times, highlighting the fact that they chose those majors because they were highly interested in their fields of study. Since they were kids, they showed a certain attitude towards technology. Eloisa wanted to work for a famous Japanese corporation developing video-games. At the secondary school, Mirela had the chance to programme a simple game connected to the TV: “It seemed so interesting to interact with the game, so I decided to learn more about it, which brought me to the computer science study”. Who is the Barbie girl here?

According to the result of a research study called Gender@ICT, gendered identities of young individuals have an effect on future educational and career choices, particularly in relation to science and technology. Yet, gender gap is seen as a non-material barrier when it comes to using computers. There are still differences between girls and boys in self-reported digital competences and experiences, even in countries where there appears to be gender and socioeconomic equality (Ferreira, 2017). Thus, non-written norms hinder opportunities for digital competences development, fundamental for the participation to the social, economic and cultural life of a human being.

Perhaps, if more girls were aware of their digital potential and relate to role models, we would have the gentle-sex more represented in ICT or in fields where competences related to the use of technology are required.

Yet, girls’ aspirations to pursue scientific careers, despite their ability in this subject area, remain much lower than boys’ in almost all European Member States. This can be mainly explained by women’s lower degree of self-confidence about their ability to perform well in the science fields, but also by a lack of adequate counselling, as well as peer and family influences. Even if they have aspiration to pursue a STEM career, in the end they do not.

Fortunately, many efforts have been done in The Netherlands to change this tendency, by organising events and inspiring girls to pursue a scientific career”, added Mirela. She believes that this tendency appeared after centuries in which women were being seen lesser than men and were refused access to education. Eloisa agrees with her colleague, stating that the lower degree of confidence is due to cultural aspects. “If girls and boys are educated differently – girls in a way that they need support – they cannot think they are good enough when they have to make decisions”. Mirela concluded saying that “Luckily, nowadays we finally have the open-minded attitude to perceive things differently and to encourage gender equality”.

Self-awareness is crucial for being conscious of our potential and boosts our proactivity, and to have a positive attitude to life. If being aware of our potential is so important, why aren’t we more self-aware? Maybe because it is not always easy observing ourselves and being conscious of our strengths (and weaknesses in turn). That is why support and encouragement are crucial to be aware about our skills and competences. Families, friends and teachers played in fact a vital role in shaping Mirela and Eloisa’s career paths. “I was lucky to have people around me who believed in me and offered me their support”, Mirela says.

Gender segregation in education and labour market enforces gender inequalities.

Gender stereotypes lead to gender segregation, funnelling in turn to gender inequalities. Gender segregation refers to the concentration of one gender in certain fields of education or occupations. As any kind of segregation, this precludes the access to certain education paths or jobs, undermining equality and inclusion. Gender segregation is a barrier for sustainable and inclusive growth in the EU.

Gender segregation is one of the reasons behind skills shortages and surpluses, that if addressed could produce a positive impact on economic growth as well as contributing to reduce long-term unemployment.

According to a study conducted by EIGE (European Institute for Gender Equality) on economic benefits of gender equality, addressing gender segregation and closing the gender gap in STEM education, would contribute to an increase in EU GDP per capita up to 3% and in employment up to 1.2 jobs in 2050.

Gender segregation is also one of the main factors of gender pay-gap between men and women. For example, in manufacturing and ICT, men earn more than women in all EU Member States. On one hand, women could be motivated in looking for job in some men-dominated fields, that are more profitable. On the other hand, they would struggle due to barriers linked to gender.

Gender barriers affect certain sectors more than others. This is the case of engineering and ICT, that fail to attract or retain women, despite the high potential for growth and a shortage of specialists in these sectors. Women represent less than 20% of graduates in ICT and this figure further decreased over the past years. The paradox is that, in this sector, is that demand for high-skilled professionals is expected to considerably grow in the coming period.

The percentage of students choosing STEM is not growing at the EU level and vast underrepresentation of women in this sector persists. Among the most man-dominated fields of education, ICT and engineering present a ratio of women of about 17%. The percentage of women graduated declined in ICT in most EU Member States, whereas some changes were noted in the fields of engineering, constructions and manufacturing.

Gender also influences the transition from education to work, leading men and women into gendered or “gender-atypical” jobs. For women having graduated in STEM is more difficult finding a job matching their background, while it is way easier for women having undertaken EHW studies. Furthermore, women having graduated in STEM, face higher challenges in combining professional and private life and this further impact their potential career advancement. Sadly, several studies have shown how having children or belonging to older age groups may reduce the chances for women to work in STEM fields. Women perceive STEM jobs as more intensive than EHW jobs, as well as less accessible in terms of skills development and clear career patterns. Conversely, work-life balance is considered better in STEM than EHW. Here Mirela and Eloisa provided different feedback. Eloisa believes that her professional and personal lives are well balanced while Mirela says that when work requires extra effort and time, she sacrifices her personal life for achieving professional goals.

Despite the EU has increased its efforts throughout a number of gender equality initiatives, several Member States need to work more to ensure equality between men and women (Gender Equality Index 2017). According to the results of a Eurobarometer survey, the 84% of respondents considered gender equality as an important issue. Moreover, the survey revealed that men are considered more ambitious than women (35%) and that it is more likely for women than men to make decisions according to their emotions. Despite a high percentage of the people interviewed see the importance of gender equality, stereotypes mislead the interpretation of two crucial concepts: ambition and decision-drivers.

Often, being emotional is associated to a lack of self-control or to the inability of making the rationality prevailing when it comes of facing stressful situations. As we could see, this attitude is wrongly associated more to women than men. Men and women have specific attributes but luckily, we all feel emotions, since we are human beings. “Even though women are tuned to their emotions, they can also be ambitious and make a career in science or in any other field they like. The peculiarities of men and women should be combined to the benefit of all, instead of competing against each other. Together we can accomplish more, by sharing different perspectives, contributing to original and creative solutions and achieving a stimulating and cooperative environment”. You are so right, Mirela!

I have the impression that although gender equality is considered important, there is no correspondence with the implementation of concrete practices to make it real. Do you believe that the professional contexts provide the same opportunities to men and women when it comes of expressing concretely their own ambitions? Women shall be supported in developing their self-awareness about their talent and trained – why not – on how to better exploit it. Maybe starting to provide guidance on how to negotiate better salaries and/or working conditions?

Many initiatives have been undertaken but there is still a lot to do “to change the public opinion about the women’s role in society, showing that they can be what they choose to be, both mothers and wives, managers or scientists, even though is hard and requires an enormous effort, it is possible”. Well said, Mirela! “The solution stands in eliminating the differences in education for men and women since their childhood and in supporting their attitudes and preferences”, added Eloisa.

To make a long story short, figures above make us understand that it is necessary to make a revolution happen and to push for concrete policies promoting gender equality in men-dominated fields thus fighting segregation. The diffusion of a culture that promotes a shift from gender to skills and competencies, would enhance equality and social inclusion throughout Europe.

I would like to conclude this article with Mirela’s words, encouraging all those young women inspired to undertake a career in STEM fields: “When you know what you want, the sky is the limit and you will find the means to make your dreams come true. You should always believe in yourself and be inspired, despite the challenges, and your reward will be priceless. You could contribute at obtaining a better world, which will give you a purpose and will help to succeed”.

Good luck girls, be the women you want to be!

 

Isabella Notarangelo – HOPE (European Hospital and Healthcare Federation).

References:

Study and work in the EU: set apart by gender. EIGE, 2018.

Economic Benefits of Gender Equality in the European Union. EIGE, 2017.

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