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STEM fields are still a man’s world

Mar 14 2017 14:31
Lloyd Gedye

We were having lunch recently with my partner’s cousin, her husband and their two little girls, when the husband told us an amusing story about the youngest, who is six. 

When her class at school was making a big deal about Valentine’s Day, the girl had some rather pointed questions for her teacher. “Why does my Valentine have to be a boy?” she asked. “Why does Valentine’s have to be pink?” she added, before declaring, “I like green.”

As the story was told, we all chuckled, but in truth my heart was swelling with pride. At six she was bravely challenging gender stereotypes that so many go through life simply accepting. 

Just that morning I had been reading an article on The Conversation, written by Stellenbosch University associate professor Nox Makunga. 

In the article Makunga argued that children’s ideas about what their gender means for their intellectual capacity are formed before they turn six. 

She added that for this reason, the prevalent stereotype that only boys are good at maths and science is doing incredible harm. “Research has shown that girls hardly ever see adult women doing jobs that involve science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) on television programmes,” wrote Makunga. 

She argued that these stereotypes perpetuated by the media, alongside a lack of visible women involved in STEM sectors to act as role models, have a huge impact on young girls’ career choices. 

This month the United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres, urged for greater investments in teaching

STEM subjects to all women and girls, as well as equal access to these opportunities.

He argued that “discriminatory stereotypes” prevent women and girls from having equal access to STEM education. “As a trained engineer and former teacher, I know that these stereotypes are flat wrong,” he added. 

Recent data published by Unesco shows that women globally make up less than 30% of people working in STEM careers. 

Perhaps my spirited young relative may end up working in one of the STEM sectors.

She has a mother who works in information technology – in fact, before joining us for lunch, she had spent that Sunday morning uploading new software to her employer’s servers. The girl’s father works in the telecoms sector. 

Makunga points out that at university level in South Africa, equal numbers of men and women are enrolling in STEM degrees, but by the time you get to postgraduate level the numbers are skewed in favour of men, indicating that women are dropping out of the system. 

Many women working in STEM sectors who have written about the problem refer to this as the “leaky pipeline”. 

Australian National University lecturer Merryn McKinnon, in an article published last year on The Conversation, argued that simply trying to get more women to study STEM degrees without addressing the broader systemic prejudices that women face would achieve nothing. 

So while my young relative is growing up in a house with two parents who work in STEM fields, she will – like any other woman – still face an uphill struggle in her bid to get her tertiary qualifications. And going out into the world of work, she’ll face another layer of oppression. 

On the same Sunday that we were having lunch, across the Atlantic, a former Uber site reliability engineer, Susan Fowler, took to her blog to detail the sexual harassment and human resources negligence she had experienced at the technology company. Fowler said she was sexually propositioned by a senior manager and reported it to the company, with screen grabs of the inappropriate message. 

Uber’s HR staff, according to Fowler, described the manager’s act as an “innocent mistake” and refused to discipline him. Uber has since launched a full investigation into the matter.

Sexual harassment appears very prevalent in the tech sector – a recent report by Elephant in the Valley states that 60% of all US women with tech careers who were surveyed had experienced unwanted sexual advances at work. 

In the wake of Fowler’s allegations against Uber, technology publications have highlighted discrimination that women face in the workplace. Many of the articles make for damning reading and paint pictures of corporate cultures that essentially condone sexual harassment.

If we are going to do something about gender inequality in the STEM sectors, we can’t limit the conversation to role models and programmes to uplift young girls. 

We also need to talk about systemic prejudice in academia and the workplace that affect women on a daily basis. Even more importantly, men need to understand that harassment in the workplace is a violent crime and not an “innocent mistake”. 

This article originally appeared in the 9 March edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here. 

science and technology  |  mathematics

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