A fresh look at gender diversity in STEM

To shine a light on the talented women who are a fundamental part of the Riverlane team, we published a series of ‘Women in STEM’ blog posts last summer sharing their personal experiences of working and studying in the field of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) – highlighting the challenges women face in male-dominated industries more generally. When asked, as part of this, what more could be done to encourage women to enter and stay in science, Chief Product Officer Leonie Mueck’s immediate response was, ‘ask all the guys!’

She makes a powerful point. Efforts to even out the balance often fall heavily on women, who – as well as working hard on their own careers – often expend large amounts of energy as role models for others by forming support groups or raising awareness at events.

Keen to solicit the ‘guys’ perspective, I spoke to Brendan Reid and Dan Underwood  – both Quantum Scientists at Riverlane – to ask them about the gender imbalance in STEM, and what men can do to positively change the landscape.

Brendan explained that when deciding what to study at University, his only criterion was to choose something he enjoyed – the perfect rationale! But with gender norms and expectations established so early in life, freedom of choice is not always straightforward for women. Recalling the experiences of some of the women on his undergraduate mathematics course, he described how, ’Some friends told me that their teachers would try to dissuade them from studying maths beyond secondary school, as it was a “boys subject”. I’ve also seen lecturers ask women to drop courses during undergrad as it was “not for girls”’. This is particularly shocking, given that Brendan is yet to enter his thirties.

Although such attitudes are – thankfully – considered extreme and outdated now, Brendan sees their enduring depth and tenacity in the micro-aggressions and unconscious biases still at play today. He remembers witnessing a male Master’s student at university assume a female PhD student was a cleaner, reflecting that ‘It’s the ease with which these thoughts can happen – this example demonstrates the act of immediately dismissing a woman as a non-scientist. Beyond that, there is a general sense that women should be taken less seriously in STEM. This is a result of generations of sexist beliefs, and it’s completely maddening’.

Dan agrees that the gender imbalance in STEM runs deep. He points to the historical notion of a scientific career: ‘that image of the crazy white-haired [male] genius working away in isolation.’ It’s one we’re all familiar with. He explains that, though cartoonish, this stereotypical image can still discourage women from entering and staying in STEM industries. ‘This stereotype is at odds with the traditional ideas of female roles in society; for example, having to sacrifice career goals to start a family. Even if we are now conscious about how outdated these ideas are, they’re still embedded in the structure of the institutions in which individuals forge their careers – a system which has historically been suited to men.’ As he concludes, ‘I’m not surprised that women may look upon this bastion of men in positions of authority and be completely put off entering the field.’

So what can men do to help?

For Brendan, it’s about becoming aware of unconscious biases and reframing your thinking to avoid them. His advice is to ‘Think before speaking. A response that might seem innocuous can actually be quite hurtful – your comment may be one of many that person has received over their lifetime, which can build up a whole raft of self-doubt. Fundamentally, treat your female colleagues as you do your male colleagues. Lots of men don’t realise they actually speak differently to men and women about science.’

Dan emphasises the importance of going beyond passive support and taking real, tangible action – to ‘play an active role in championing diversity so that women don’t have to spend their time doing it all themselves, and foster environments where women are actively encouraged to take charge, own their work and present it to the world.’ He suggests men can do more to promote their female colleagues; ‘In amplifying the voices of women already pursuing STEM careers we can offer a more diverse set of role models, to give out a positive and encouraging message. This will slowly but surely help to change the perceptions of society.’

On this basis, Dan recommends voting with your feet. ‘Be selective about which organisations you choose to work with based on their track record of gender equality and their values’, he advises, urging that ‘you should also practice being vocal within organisations you are already in – if you notice a female colleague being spoken over or quickly dismissed, call it out. The more people who do this, the more will realise it isn’t acceptable and start to change their behaviours too.’

It’s a work in progress, but even small shifts in attitudes and actions can bring about positive, sustained change. If we can all cultivate awareness of institutionalised biases – not just towards gender but for all types of diversity – and play an active role in challenging and driving out outdated beliefs, then we reset our coordinates towards a more equal society.

Here at Riverlane, fostering diversity and inclusion are at our very core, and we pride ourselves on building an ever-more diverse team.

 

Not only that, but you could be part of it! We’re currently hiring – check out our exciting opportunities here.