By Kate Jenkins
I want you to imagine a scientist. They might be wearing a white coat and strange-looking lab goggles, perhaps they are a chemist. Did you picture a man? When I did this test, I pictured a man, as did the thousands at Yale University who were tested. Now picture an engineer. You’re likely thinking of a woman since you’ve been exposed to the male bias, but it’s also likely you pictured a white woman. Rest assured, so did I. Perhaps what is more shocking is when Chinese children, who had spent all their life in China, were asked how they picture a scientist they drew a white male. So why do we have such a specific image of what a scientist looks like?
Societal norms and stereotypes influence everything we do from a young age. Indeed, even the toys we interact with during childhood have a profound impact on how we perceive different spaces and who occupies them.
In toy stores, it is clear which aisle is marketed towards the boys and which is marketed towards the girls. The boys’ aisle overflows with construction toys, make-believe science experiments and erupting volcanos. On the other hand, the girls’ aisle is littered with princess dresses, pretend washing machines and fake babies, some of which are so advanced they have actual tears. I’m not saying there is no place for these toys, I happened to love my hot pink washing machine. Yet, the example of the toy store demonstrates just how early we begin recognising what mould society would have us take.
It is frequently argued that biology influences male dominance within STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) as different skill sets emerge from different genders. Yet, countless studies have shown that this is simply not the case.
Arguably, the most significant difference between the sexes is the socially constructed feeling of ‘belonging’ and feeling ‘outcast’ in STEM. Luigi Gzuiso studied this sense of belonging by comparing the gender gap within STEM experienced by different countries. Gzuiso found that in countries such as turkey where gender neutrality and equality is scarce, the gender gap is greater. However, in countries such as Norway where an emphasis is placed on equal opportunity and gender neutrality, the gap was much smaller. This, therefore, illustrates how male dominance in STEM is socially constructed and exacerbated by the under-representation of women and minority groups.
Although women make up roughly 50% of the overall workforce, they only make up 24% of the STEM workforce. We’ve seen an increase of 50.1% of women embarking on STEM undergraduate courses. Yet, less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women. The discrepancy between women in STEM careers and those completing degrees is rooted in institutionalised bias, which prevents progress in the workplace.
There is not enough support for women or minorities in workplaces designed by and for men. The Guardian found that 1/3 of women in STEM expect to quit the field within five years. This is due to barriers such as lack of access to jobs, especially more senior roles, and a lack of provisions to balance their careers with childcare. Furthermore, within the top tech firms in the UK, 70% of the top boards and senior executive teams didn’t have a single BAME member (Black, Asian and minority ethnic). In addition, only 8.1% of engineers were from BAME groups, and BAME women comprised less than 2%. The dire lack of representation is clear and influences who can picture themselves entering these careers.
Despite the rising number of women and minorities entering STEM careers over recent years, little has been done to break discriminatory barriers. An investigation from Yale University explored institutional biases by sending over a hundred institutions the same application for a lab manager role. The only difference: half had the name John and the other half, Jennifer. Across the board, ‘John’s’ application was rated more highly qualified and offered a 15% higher salary. A similar discriminatory bias was found when a further four applications were produced, two with a typically black name and two with a typically white name. For each name, there was a poor-quality application and a higher one. The poorly qualified white man was consistently rated higher than the highly qualified black man, even by companies that stated they prioritise diversity.
Discrimination in STEM is deeply rooted, and I believe the only way to correct it is to move towards a system promoting positive discrimination to prioritise diversification. To those who disagree with this on the grounds of maintaining meritocracy, I ask you to tell me what is meritocratic about this current system. This is a social justice issue that will not be corrected without the active promotion of under-represented groups. Representation is imperative to diversifying STEM, and maybe one day when asked to imagine a scientist we will imagine a diverse group of individuals like those we see in our everyday lives.
Illustration: Verity Laycock