Written by Sophie Scott

In The News

The root of the STEM problem

If you limit the diversity of people working in any field, you reduce its effectiveness – science included, says Prof Sophie Scott.

scientist holding a beakerDuring British Science Week, it is salutary to remember that there aren’t enough women working in STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) topics, and that’s a problem for STEM because the greater the variety of clever people working in an area, the stronger it is.

Many barriers have been erected to women in science. For example, within living memory in the UK, some schools did not allow girls to study science at school. The physicist Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s parents had to campaign for her to be allowed to study science – and within the next decade she had built a radio telescope BY HAND and discovered pulsars with it.

Limiting access, however unwittingly, limits the whole field. If Bell Burnell’s parents had not been successful, would pulsars have been discovered so soon, and in the UK?

The under-representation of women in STEM topics is often obscured by the belief that women don’t like these areas – and even that the female brain is unsuited to science and related topics.

This is a very neat trick: it makes the lack of women seem like women’s fault. Hell, the female brain just disposes you to prefer to do other stuff! You know, the stuff that’s less prestigious and pays you less.

The second trick this pulls off is to ensure we start ignoring all the women who are already working in STEM topics, because if female brains don’t really work in this way, then there must not be any of those, no? True to form, our cultural stereotype of a scientist is that he will be a man.

If you ask school children to draw scientists, they draw men. This pushes women even further away from science – along the lines of ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t be it’.

If you look at the history of computer science, women were well represented as students in the early days of the subject: the proportion of women going into computing only started to decline in the early 80s when computers came into the home, and became seen as things for men.

“If we look at crime, another area where men and women are highly unequally represented, we are very happy as a culture to come to the conclusion that it’s nothing to do with brains. We hardly ever worry about why women don’t commit more crimes, yet for every woman in prison there are 25 men.”

Thus, my parents bought my brother two Spectrum computers in the early 80s. Which is nice, but one of us became a research scientist who had to write all her own code for her thesis (*not bitter, just saying face*). I still recall how happily surprised I was to discover that coding was not only doable, but actually fun. Who knew? Certainly not me, 10 years earlier.

However, the idea that men are naturally good at STEM topics and women are not falls apart if we look at the numbers. There are more male maths students at university than female (1.1 per cent of male students are studying maths, compared to 0.8 per cent of female students), but male students are also 25 times more likely to study business-related topics at universities, than study maths. No one argues that this means that male brains can’t do maths.

girl with microscopeWe are also very choosy about what phenomena we decide to associate with brain differences. Indeed, if we look at crime, another area where men and women are highly unequally represented, we are happy as a culture to come to the conclusion that it’s nothing to do with brains. Although we’re always fretting about women in science, we hardly ever worry about why women don’t commit more crimes, yet for every woman in prison there are 25 men. That’s an even worse ratio than engineering!

Not only are we unconcerned about the lack of women in prison, we don’t even treat this as a gendered problem for society. Maybe that’s because it suggests there might be something a tiny weeny bit toxic about how we raise young men in our culture, that leads to them being so very much more likely to commit crimes. Or even, that men’s brains just work that way. I mean, who would be so reductive as to make that claim?

Obviously I’m not, but it’s a great example of how we explain away or ignore the relationship between men and crime, while women’s brains are often our first port of call when explaining the under-representation of women pretty much everywhere else. Except for nursing. Oh no, sorry, that has been explained away as a function of the female brain as well.

Last year when Nigel Short was making sage pronouncements about why women can’t play chess well, someone on Twitter quietly pointed out that most men can’t play chess really well, either. We too often are happy to generalise from our science boffin stereotype being a man, to assuming none of the boffins are female, to the conclusion that women can’t do science.

True, most women are not boffins, but then neither are most men. And for all the boffins, their boffinity has more to do with opportunities and encouragement they received than it does their brains. Just like chess players, computer scientists or criminals, for that matter.

@sophiescott

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Written by Sophie Scott

I am a cognitive neuroscientist at UCL, and I study brains, voices, speaking and laughing. In my spare time I try to turn theory into practice with science based stand up comedy. @sophiescott