We hear a lot about the dearth of women in careers in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
Last month I had the opportunity to watch a documentary film about young female entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. I watched it with a group of female university students studying STEM subjects. I know. Me, a serious mathophobe with all of those brilliantly gifted women …one of these things is not like the other.
The film focused on the stories of two young female tech founders trying to make their mark on Silicon Valley. We meet Stacey and Thuy and many other young (and some slightly older) women as they seek to establish themselves as players in the tech industry.
The audience gets to peer behind the curtains and see the kinds of sacrifices made in an effort to bring a start-up to fruition. We also get to see the predominantly white older man narrative playing out in many industries.
During the question and answer part of the evening a young woman raised her hand and said some women in STEM programs may give up after they get a low mark. They lose confidence in themselves and their abilities. Unlike guys who blame the poor grade on external circumstances like the bad teacher or the stupid test, the women may give up because they think that they are just not smart enough. So they switch majors
Granted, they don’t usually go from engineering to sociology; rather they may opt to transfer from chemistry to physics, one STEM subject to another. But perhaps one that does not push them, or one they are not passionate about. They may drop the program that could lead to changes in the world. From my perspective anything in that domain is exceptionally hard work, but these women see the nuances in all of the different streams. These are the women who we want and need to be living up to their potential – they could change the world!
Perhaps women are cheating themselves and the world because of the realities of our society. The world of science is not a particularly hospitable place for women. Case in point – Tim Hunt, a winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, who said this about women: “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.”
The all boy’s club still exists, and the STEM world is a leading member. It has probably been this way forever, and the women who want to play in that world are constantly bombarded with negative stereotypes and attitudes like those of Mr. Hunt. Or perhaps you may look at the game of chess, where Nigel Short, one of the UK’s best chess players ever, believes that women are hard-wired very differently, saying that his wife is much more emotionally intelligent than he is (clearly), but that she will ask him to manoeuvre the car into their narrow garage.
For Short and Hunt, it is cut and dry; women are too emotional and have no depth perception.
So not only do you have society telling women they should not be pursing STEM careers, you have highly accomplished leaders in the scientific community spewing this kind of nonsense. How are we supposed to nurture our young female rock stars of the STEM world when they are confronted by these negative attitudes in our society? And how do they even get there if they just give up in university – or worse yet, not even get to university because they think they don’t have what it takes to succeed?
But what of the young men who change their minds? Perhaps it’s not just gender; maybe we may need to focus on supporting our young people to develop a growth mindset, rather than fixed.
With men or women, an essential factor to consider is fit. Is STEM the right fit for everyone? No! Some people are more drawn to the humanities, or to sales or the skilled trades. To me, when you find your place in the world, that’s when you can really make a difference.
I may not be able to change the world through science, technology, engineering or math, but I can most definitely support these women as they do. Go for it my STEM sisters!