It seems like recently women’s underrepresentation in science and technology is finally being seen as a serious issue. It’s a more and more frequent topic of conversation in the feminist blogosphere, and in last week’s New York Times, four top women scientists discussed some of the barriers women face in pursuing a scientific career and how institutional commitment to increasing representation can have a big impact, and this Monday the White House held an International Dialogue on the subject.
In my first couple of posts here I mentioned issues stemming from the idea that a scientific brain is a male brain, while female brains, being “too emotional,” tend towards less “rational” pursuits. However, all the evidence points to this being a social issue, not a biological one (for a great slide show on women in computer science, check out this post at Geek Feminism).
Although research by the Canadian Youth Science Monitor showed an equal number of youth of both genders interested in pursuing careers in science, recent UNESCO data shows a lack of women scientists worldwide, and US and Canadian organizations recognize this underrepresentation as a continuing challenge. In the male-dominated field of engineering, the peak of women’s enrollment in Canada was in 2001, when women made up 20.5% of undergraduates. In engineering and natural sciences, women make up only 30% of the doctoral degrees awarded.
When some science facilities create a hostile climate for women and our schools and universities fail to actively recruit women into science we create a vicious cycle, with young women unable to see themselves reflected in the cultural ideal of what it means to be a “scientist” or an “engineer” or to pursue other technology-focused professions. When I was in high school I got the message loud and clear: It isn’t sexy for girls to be smart. This message is compounded by representations in popular culture, with incidents like the Forever 21 magnet “I’m too Pretty to Do Math” controversy demonstrating that many still believe science is men’s terrain.
Then there’s the way women pioneers in their fields tend to be judged by their gender. Microsoft Developer Jennifer Marsman says that when you’re a woman in technology, you sometimes feel like you’re carrying the entire weight of your gender on your shoulders: “Since women are such a minority in the computing field, a female presenter does stand out. If she does a poor job, it might reflect poorly on all women, which is a lot of pressure.”
But even if we had more female scientist characters in pop culture, it wouldn’t change the material factors that deter women from scientific careers. In North America, the lack of a universal childcare program might make women think twice before taking on a career in science or technology, where—as the women interviewed in the New York Times pointed out—long hours and travel are often demanded. And 21 years after the Montreal Massacre, when female engineering students were gunned down for being female engineering students, the threat of violence against women who take on “male” roles hasn’t completely abated. While we haven’t experienced another shooting of female science students, many report experiencing hostility from male classmates and professors, as well as from coworkers later in their professional lives.
It’s an understatement to say that these problems are exacerbated for women of color. While women overall have made some gains in science and some have been recognized for outstanding achievements, by and large it is white women whose representation is increasing, and they are also the ones most recognized for their achievements.
In her book, When Everything Changed, Gail Collins interviews a woman of Latina descent who started a job at IBM in the 1990s. She recalls a male colleague who told her she had to spend more of the time during her presentations explaining how she was like the white men in the room, how she had gone to the same schools as them and earned the same degrees, because, her colleague said, “Right now they’re spending the first 10 minutes wondering, who is this Latina woman?” If young white women find it hard to find role models in science, young women of color—especially First Nations women—have an even harder time, and this is a serious problem.
And educational and income inequality also disproportionately affects women of color, making it more difficult to pursue post-secondary education. We can’t talk about encouraging women and girls in science and technology without talking about addressing these issues.
So how do we address them? On the representation front, it’d be great to see more women scientist characters in pop culture, particularly women of color. It’s also going to be up to women who have succeeded in science to put themselves out there as role models, to take on mentorship roles, and to help institutions change their cultures to actively recruit more women.
Innovation Canada came out with a great video in honor of International Women’s Day called “Women’s Work,” which features the stories of five Canadian women scientists from different racial backgrounds. It would be great to see more videos like this more widely disseminated.
The material changes needed are more difficult. We need government to work to increase women’s access to child care, to support women pursuing post-secondary education in the sciences, and to make sure our school system is tackling the stereotype that science=male. We need to make particular efforts to address racial income inequality and racist attitudes that make it harder for people of color to continue their education. These are difficult needs to address, but not impossible, and entirely worth fighting for.