The Issues and Barriers Facing Women in Technology

There is great interest in understanding why the technology industry and wider STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) fields have low participation by women. In this guest post, Lucy Wright summarizes some key studies that address this disparity and offer solutions to increase diversity. 

Much has been written about the dearth of women working in the technology industry. From an apparent low interest in technology-related subjects at school through to the small number of women employees in tech companies today, there is a serious and undeniable under-representation of women in the tech industry. This is despite the fact, that women have been some of the most innovative pioneers of technology historically.

Key statistics are below:

  • Women own only 5% of start-ups in the US
  • In the UK, only 5% of women are in a technology leadership role
  • Only 3% of British high school students say they would choose the technology sector as a career choice
  • Only 16% of women have had a career in tech suggested to them

What are the issues underlying this?

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Maths Through Stories: A Profile of Dr Natthapoj Vincent Trakulphadetkrai

Dr. Natthapoj Vincent Trakulphadetkrai founded MathsThroughStories.org, a non-profit research-based initiative which sets out to encourage teachers and parents globally to help children learn mathematics more effectively and, equally important, more enjoyably through storytelling. The website offers various evidence-based and freely available resources, including support for children to make their own stories. One of the research projects he leads, Representation of Girls and Women in Mathematics-specific Picturebooks, finds that female characters are significantly underrepresented in mathematical picturebooks when compared to their male counterparts.

Can you start off by telling us a little bit about your research that led to this project? In particular, why is it important to feature gender and race/ethnic diversity in learning mathematics through storytelling?

MathsThroughStories.org draws from a body of research over the past three decades that highlights pedagogical benefits of teaching mathematical concepts through storytelling, particularly in the form of story-picture books. One of these research projects has been conducted in a few different countries (including England, Ireland, and Malta). It is an investigation into teachers’ self-reported frequency of using story-picture books in their mathematics instruction as well as their perceived barriers to (and perceived enablers for) the integration of stories in mathematics teaching. A key finding is that while early years practitioners regularly make use of storytelling as part of their daily mathematics teaching, teachers of primary (elementary) school children (5-11 years old) are much less aware of such teaching approach. The principal reported barrier is the lack of awareness (and hence pedagogical knowledge) of how story-picture books can be incorporated into mathematics teaching. Thus, MathsThroughStories.org wants to help raise teachers’ awareness in this area, and to essentially encourage them in giving this approach a go.

In terms of why it is important to feature gender and race/ethnic diversity in mathematical stories, I draw from the idea of Weitzman, Eifler, Hokada and Ross (1972), that picture books are read to children when they are most impressionable and when they are forming their self-images and future expectations of themselves. Imagine a classroom where the teacher only reads mathematical stories where boys and men are always the protagonist solving problems using their mathematical knowledge and skills, while girls and women are secondary characters lurking behind a tree. If you are a girl listening only to stories with such characteristics, how would you see yourself in relation to mathematics now and in the future? Thus, as educators and parents, we need to critically examine what otherwise seems to be a very colourful, cute and harmless educational resource.

A young girl looks up thoughtfully as she writes in class
How would girls see themselves in mathematics?

 

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“I Don’t Need the Most Expert Expert Who Ever Experted”: Q & A with Journalist Mika McKinnon

Men dominate media: in news rooms and stories, they get more exposure on camera, more by-lines and are quoted more often. An analysis of  2,353,652 news articles covering 12 topic categories from over 950 news outlets over a six month period ending in April, 2015 showed that mentions of men ranged from 69.5% in Entertainment to 91.5% in Sports. The only exception was Fashion, where women edged out men slightly at 54%. A more recent analysis by science writer Ed Yong of his STEM stories was similarly discouraging: only 24 percent of his quoted sources were women. Worse, 35 percent of his articles featured no female voices at all. Why does this matter? As journalist and editor Adrienne Lafrance noted in The Atlantic, the extreme gender imbalance in the media implies that the best voices are not those of women and misses out on diverse viewpoints, experiences and ideas. Journalist and field geophysicist Mika McKinnon is acutely aware of this gender differential in reporting and makes it a point to ask both men and women for expert comments. When making press requests, she is typically turned down more often by women. One case stood out: not one of 74 women requested for an interview obliged, contrasting with 11 of 15 men who agreed, including two who stated that they were not experts. She tweeted her frustration.

This tweet was seen over 792,000 times with more than 16,000 interactions, clearly demonstrating that the topic touched a nerve. We asked Mika to share her experience and her thoughts on the gender imbalance in journalism reporting. 

Mika McKinnon kneels at the edge of icy water
Solving gender bias problems in science – Mika McKinnon

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Professional Role Confidence for Early-Career Women Engineers

Sitting in a conference hearing a male colleague speak about the mentors who’d supported his career, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Professor Anita Sengupta realised that, as one of the few women in her field, she’d never had this type of support.

“I sat there thinking, I’ve been working here for 10 years, and I never had that… I’m also a professor at University of Southern California,  and there are very few female professors in hard science and engineering fields. So, there aren’t enough female role models girls can look up to and feel like this kind of thing is normal. It’s a huge detractor. There aren’t enough role models pulling girls in.”

An American longitudinal study can shed light on how Professor Sengupta’s individual experience is part of a broader pattern affecting women engineers.

Anita Sengupta

The research examined the reasons why women engineering students drop out before completing their course. Contrary to public perception, the study finds that family plans and self-confidence in STEM knowledge (such as math abilities) do not have a significant impact. Instead, the study shows that women tend not to finish their engineering degrees because they lack “professional role confidence.” This idea encompasses a person’s assessment that they can fulfil the roles, competencies, and identity required of engineers.

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Women Trailblazers in Science

Today we take a look at various women who have inspired us for their trailblazing efforts in science. We start with Dr Harriette Chick, who was a microbiologist, nutritionist and the first scientist to show sunshine impacts health. Particle physicist, Dr Fabiola Gianotti, is the first woman leader of CERN. You likely know Florence Nightingale for her contributions to nursing, but did you know she was the first woman awarded the Order of Merit, and the first scientist to develop graphical statistics? Astronomer Dr Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was the first person to discover what the universe is made of, though few people understand her tremendous contributions to the field of physics.  Did you know that the word “scientist” was invented to describe the research contributions of Mary Somerville? She trained as a mathematician, astronomer and historian. Finally, Dr Jane Cooke Wright was a “first” in many senses, as a Black woman physician, cancer researcher, and the first woman elected president of the New York Cancer Society.

Learn more about these amazing scientists below!

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Shut Up, Sit Back, and Listen

Dr. Bastian Greshake Tzovaras offers concrete ways in which men can  be effective allies to empower women and promote gender equity in STEMM fields. Our guest post is part of a collection of articles entitled, “Championing the Success of Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths, and Medicine.” 

The UNESCO Institute for Statistics estimates that only around 30 percent of researchers worldwide are women (1). Similarly, according to the Economics and Statistics Administration of the US Department of Commerce only 24 per cent of STEM jobs are held by women (2), with individual disciplines like Engineering having a significantly worse gender bias. There’s also extensive literature on biases against women in STEM (3), affecting all aspects of academia, including hiring, publishing, citation counts and teaching. Given these disheartening statistics, it is clear that there is still a long way to go before we can even start thinking about gender equality in STEM.

Why am I, a man in STEM, writing about this? Because to me these statistics also show another thing: men, who are dominating these fields, have an obligation to support women in STEM and help level the playing field. But how can men help to facilitate change and support women in STEM? All the things I try to implement are the result of listening to women – who sacrificed their spare time to educate me – and taking their advice. Thus, maybe the single best, most actionable thing is this: step back, shut up, give women space, and listen to them.

What can this look like on a more concrete level? Ask yourself about your own environments: is it men, including me, who are taking up all the airtime at meetings (4)? Chances are that this is the case, as women are interrupted more often than men (5) and speak significantly less at professional meetings (6). So take a break and let others speak. To whom are you paying attention (7)? Is it the always same male crowd? For social media some tools let you check the gender breakdown of the people you read (8). Make sure to identify those voices you’ve ignored so far and listen to them. Along the same lines, ask to whom you are giving an audience. Make sure also to boost the messages of women instead of only focusing on your (male) buddies (9). Generally, the male overrepresentation in STEM means you’re likely to default to male perspectives. Make sure to steer actively against this.

Listen to women in STEM

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Women in Space

Dr Mae Jemison. (Source)

This 12 September 2017 is the 25th anniversary of Dr Mae Jemison’s flight on space shuttle Endeavour as the first Black American woman to travel in space. Dr Jemison began her career as a physician who served in the Peace Corps, before making history as an astronaut. To celebrate Dr Jamison’s achievements, let’s take a look at her contributions and the trajectory of other iconic women in spaceflight.

While there have been many iconic women pioneers in space travel, their ascent has been a triumph over gender inequity. Up until the 1980s, the media largely focused on women astronauts’ looks, making disparaging jokes about their femininity getting in the way of their missions. Thus they ignored the mental and physical stamina required to go into this field, not to mention the high level of education demanded of astronauts, who are qualified scientists. For example, the first woman to travel in space in 1963, Dr Valentina Tereshkova, did so after acquiring a Phd in engineering.

Only 50 years a go, astronaut John Glenn dismissed the scientific qualifications of women astronauts using biological determinism. He told a USA Subcommittee: “The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order. It may be undesirable.”

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