Despite statistics showing that more women than men complete tertiary study, the number of women undertaking degrees in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields is very low. This is also despite the fact that some studies show that girls’ participation in STEM secondary subjects is almost on a par with boys’ interest in those fields.
Employment and government bodies in Australia and around the world are investigating the disparity in why so few women are transitioning from secondary school STEM subjects to university studies, and why those who graduate don’t always transition to long-term careers in their fields.
Historical exclusion of women
Scientists seeking to understand the human body and how it relates to its environment have discovered great things throughout history. Unfortunately, one significant omission in centuries of scientific investigation and methodology have led to countless injuries and deaths, and whole areas of physiology and medicine until recently only scantly explored.
That omission? The exclusion of women from scientific investigation, both as scientists and as subjects.
Traditionally, laboratory studies worked only with male lab rats. This was meant to give more standardised results, without scientists having to account for the hormonal life cycles of female rats.
That’s great for developing more predictable results. It’s not so great if you’re a female rat or, by extension, a female human being to whom lab results and field work are meant to apply.
For centuries, women were excluded from studying or acting in scientific fields – some having to go so far as pretend to be men (we’re looking at you, Dr James Barry).
The long-term exclusion of female subjects has had some consequences that perhaps should have been foreseen, since men and women do have differing biologies. As journalist Marguerite Del Giudice points out, women’s health has suffered because their bodies are less understood by medical research than men’s:
It’s now widely acknowledged that countless women with heart disease have been misdiagnosed in emergency rooms and sent home, possibly to die from heart attacks, because for decades what we know now wasn’t known: that they can exhibit different symptoms from men for cardiovascular disease.
It’s not only in medicine where the consequences of female exclusion can be found. Women use technology – including vehicle safety devices and voice activation technology – just as much as men do, but at times their voices almost literally cannot be heard among the users. Researchers Margolia and Fisher reported in their book Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing:
Some early voice-recognition systems were calibrated to typical male voices. As a result, women’s voices were literally unheard. … Similar cases are found in many other industries. For instance, a predominantly male group of engineers tailored the first generation of automotive airbags to adult male bodies, resulting in avoidable deaths for women and children.
In spite of the obstacles, many women have achieved great things in science, including Marie Sklodowska-Curie, Ada Lovelace, Rachel Carson and Shirley Ann Jackson. So how do we get more women involved, and hopefully avoid these blind spots in scientific research?
The exclusion of broader experience
We had a chat with Elana Montagner, another woman who has achieved great things in science. Elana is a speaker at the upcoming Melbourne Knowledge Week Women in Science panel, who graduated from La Trobe University with a Masters of Nanotechnology. We asked her about her experiences as a woman in STEM and how this has impacted her career.
Elana pointed out that part of the problem is that smart women with the aptitude for science don’t pursue STEM careers.
‘A lot of women I know are incredibly intelligent and could do fantastic things, but weren’t encouraged to follow STEM careers. These women could have really benefitted the community from being part of science, but chose to use their intellect in other pursuits because they weren’t shown the benefits of following STEM careers.’
The lack of women in STEM can be seen as not making the most of our resources. Montagner says:
‘We don’t have all the smartest brains working on it, whether they’re male or female. We need the best people working on it, and we don’t get as many of the best women as we do of the best men.’
The question then is how to encourage the smartest women to apply their abilities to STEM. It’s a multifaceted problem, but Montagner suggests a starting point.
‘If we’re targeting this program towards women, there needs to be women involved in the development process.’
More women in science: good for women, good for science, good for everybody
Women bring vital life experiences and viewpoints to research questions, methodology and interpretation of data. Research and its resulting technology affect all members of the human race, not just the half that traditionally work in the field. As Elana Montagner concludes:
‘If we want to get science out there and improving people’s lives, then we need to improve everyone’s life, and that needs to have contributions from both men and women.’
Interested in a career in STEM? Check out La Trobe’s courses.