Gender bias holds girls back from science careers

For product scientist Jo Douglas-Harris “engineering was never talked about as an option for a career”, she says. Despite this, she earned a chemistry degree from the University of Edinburgh.

The subject proved too theoretical, so in search of something with a more practical application, she went on to study chemical engineering — her PhD work investigated how to reduce the environmental impact of laundry detergents.

She believes improving women’s visibility in the science and engineering fields and making these sectors more inclusive will encourage girls who enjoy those subjects to pursue them as a career.

Data analysis by the Financial Times reveals a sharp difference in attitudes towards boys and girls and their pursuit of science-related careers. It also highlights the gender stereotypes that affect pupils’ career choices and lead women to miss out on higher-earning occupations.

Ms Douglas-Harris, 29, now works in the development of titanium dioxide pigments at Venator, a global chemical company. She is vice-president of the Women’s Engineering Society — a charity and professional network of engineers, scientists and technologists.

According to the OECD, boys across its 36 wealthy member nations are on average three times more likely to aspire to a science-related career than girls, regardless of their skills.

Louise Archer, professor of the sociology of education at University College London, says science-related sectors need a more diverse workforce “for active citizenship, for good society, for social good”. 

A skills shortage means women with a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) background are in demand. But globally, even girls with top results often see related jobs as “not for people like me”, reflecting societal stereotypes and a lack of role models.

Low expectations

On average more than one in four boys said they expected to work as an engineer, technology or science professional when they are 30 years old. This is in stark contrast to the fewer than one in 12 girls, according to the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), which interviewed about 600,000 15-year-olds.

Column chart of % of 15-year-old students who expect to work in each occupation when they are 30, average of 37 OECD countries, 2018 showing Boys expect to be scientists and ITC professionals more than girls

The proportion of boys who expect a career in information and communication technology is 11 times larger than that of girls. Only 0.6 per cent of 15-year-old female pupils reported such expectations across member countries.

Among students across OECD nations who achieve the top scores in maths and science, boys on average are still nearly twice as likely to expect a career in science and engineering than girls.

Line chart of  showing High performances in science and maths are not translated in related career expectations for girls

In almost all countries there were gendered aspirations among the top maths and science achievers. At least 30 per cent of boys in 22 countries expected such a career but in not one country was this the case for girls.

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Gender stereotypes

“There is a perception among teachers that science is harder for girls,” says Helen Wollaston. “I don’t think it is deliberate, but it is quite deep rooted.”

Ms Wollaston is chief executive of Wise, a UK-based community interest company that provides services to employers, educators and training providers wanting to improve their gender balance.

To tackle both the lack of female role models in Stem subjects and the perception of a need to be “nerdy” to work in science and engineering, Wise aims to connect girls’ personalities with female role models who have similar character traits via live events and an interactive tool called MySkillsMyLife.

Data shows the lack of female role models and societal gender stereotypes play a significant role in shaping pupils’ career aspirations.

In a 2015 OECD study, all countries — including Germany, South Korea and Hong Kong — at least twice as many parents had Stem aspirations for their sons than for their daughters.

In countries including Italy and Portugal, the proportion was about 50 per cent for sons but less than 20 per cent for daughters.

Column chart of %, 2015 showing Percentage of students whose parents expect that they will work in STEM occupations

In a Unesco report, its director of the division for inclusion, Soo-Hyang Choi, says that girls are often brought up to believe that a female’s ability to master Stem topics is innately inferior to that of males. As a result, “this can undermine girls’ confidence, interest and willingness to engage in [them]”, she says.

survey of 5,000 young people, parents and teachers in the UK by Accenture, the professional services firm, revealed that half of parents and two-thirds of teachers admit to stereotypes about girls and boys in relation to Stem jobs, and more than two-thirds of teachers said they have seen girls drop Stem subjects because of parental pressure.

Katy Hampshire, director of operations and programmes at Education and Employers, a UK charity that connects schools and colleges with volunteers from the world of work, believes ideas of traditional femininity, specifically around nurturing or caring roles, may also explain the difference in career aspirations.

While Ifeyinwa Rita Kanu was being encouraged by her parents to go into medicine, she was much more interested in pursuing her “great love of nature”.

She earned a PhD in civil engineering at Edinburgh’s Heriot Watt University, in Scotland, and is now the founder and chief executive of IntelliDigest, a UK-based company that provides services and technology for a more environmentally friendly solution to food waste.

Her parents felt her chosen direction would be too male dominated, but she has a “passion for creating things from scraps around me”.

Entrenched ideas

Organisations around the world have been trying to transform attitudes over the past decades, but it is not easy.

Initiatives include Mexico’s Niñas Stem Pueden, which invites women with prominent careers in science and mathematics to encourage girls to choose such subjects. The Australian government has invested $13m over the five years up to 2020 to encourage more girls to study Stem.

In the US, designated public programmes run alongside private initiatives such as Girls Who Code and STEM for Her. Hundreds of such organisations exist in the UK — including Inspiring WomenSTEMettes and the 1851 Trust — but experts warn that efforts are uncoordinated and often do not reach schools that need the most help.

UCL’s Prof Archer believes many projects are trying to change girls’ minds rather than acting on the factors affecting perceptions, such as providing teacher training on equality and stereotyping.

Unbalanced gender career aspirations are reinforcing the lack of diversity in science.

Globally, only 28 per cent of researchers are women, according to the UN. Male students make-up the majority of those enrolled in engineering, manufacturing and construction, and information and communication technology subjects at university.

Bar chart of % global students enrolled in higher education showing Women are underrepresented in ITC and engineering studies

Even when women do follow scientific disciplines, they leave in disproportionate numbers during their studies or the transition to the world of work, or during their career cycle.

Girls “often pursue educational pathways, particularly in vocational education, that are linked to occupations which pay less than occupations more dominated by men but of similar skills levels”, warned Anthony Mann, senior policy analyst at the OECD.

In the US, science-related jobs such as information security analysts, statisticians, mathematicians and software developers — jobs that few girls aspire to — are all expected to increase by more than 25 per cent in the next decade and, according to official data, they are all paying more than twice the median wage, according to official data.

While progress towards more equal uptake is slow, experts say there are reasons to be optimistic as the divisions among sectors are blurred by technology, and scientific discoveries linked to environmental issues broadens appeal.

As a result there is scope to “refresh the message” for girls to study science, Ms Wollaston says. “If you want to make a difference and have a strong sense of purpose in your job, choose science.”

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