Supporting the Careers of Women Working in Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics
Author: Dr Zuleyka Zevallos
My name is Dr Zuleyka Zevallos. I hold a PhD in Sociology. My research specialises in ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality and political sociology. I am an Adjunct Research Fellow with Swinburne University.
Sitting in a conference hearing a male colleague speak about the mentors who’d supported his career, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Professor Anita Sengupta realised that, as one of the few women in her field, she’d never had this type of support.
“I sat there thinking, I’ve been working here for 10 years, and I never had that… I’m also a professor at University of Southern California, and there are very few female professors in hard science and engineering fields. So, there aren’t enough female role models girls can look up to and feel like this kind of thing is normal. It’s a huge detractor. There aren’t enough role models pulling girls in.”
An American longitudinal study can shed light on how Professor Sengupta’s individual experience is part of a broader pattern affecting women engineers.
The research examined the reasons why women engineering students drop out before completing their course. Contrary to public perception, the study finds that family plans and self-confidence in STEM knowledge (such as math abilities) do not have a significant impact. Instead, the study shows that women tend not to finish their engineering degrees because they lack “professional role confidence.” This idea encompasses a person’s assessment that they can fulfil the roles, competencies, and identity required of engineers.
The world has been abuzz with news that the Rosetta spacecraft landed on a comet 500 million kilometres from Earth, in an attempt to collect vital data about the origins of our solar system. The aim is to benefit humanity. Unfortunately, this event is also marred for women in STEM and our allies due to the pervasive power of sexism. Rosetta Project scientist Matt Taylor chose to wear a shirt with semi-nude women, effectively telling the world and our next generation of STEM workers that sexism is still very much part of our professional culture.
By the way, this is not the first time he’s publicly worn this shirt. He tweeted that he received the shirt as a present in early October and none of his 2,700 followers on Twitter paid attention. Most worrying is that he is photographed in an office – which suggests he may have worn this shirt to work and none of his management nor colleagues pointed out the inappropriate attire.
This comes only a couple of weeks since The New York Times declared that sexism in academia is dead (as we noted, this claim was based on a highly flawed study). What this wardrobe choice says is that some male scientists in strategic positions for major science organisations do not see equality as a serious issue. Taylor works for the European Space Agency and he is prominently featured on a NASA website.
Here is an examination of the scientific flaws in the recent New York Times (NYT) Op-Ed: “Academic Science Isn’t Sexist.” The Op-Ed authors, psychologists Professor Wendy Williams and Professor Stephen Ceci, put forward various wide-sweeping statements about the effect of gender on academic careers of women scientists. The article outlines the fact that women make up a minority of junior faculty members, particularly in maths-intensive fields like engineering and computer science (25%-30%) and an even smaller proportion in senior positions (7%-15%).
Williams and Ceci argue that much of the empirical studies that established gender inequality in academia are outdated (mostly published prior to the year 2000). They argue that more recent data show that inequality has been diminished in academia. The researchers claim that women are promoted and remunerated at the same rate as men – except in economics. Williams and Ceci further argue that women’s numbers have been steadily growing in the life sciences and psychology. They note that the proportion of women in maths-intensive fields has also been growing, but not as much. Their analysis attempts to explain why this is the case.
The central argument presented in their NYT article is that women would fare well in maths-intensive subjects, “if they choose to enter these fields in the first place.” To put it another way, the problem as they see it, is that gender inequality is a myth, and that the discrepancies between men and women would be reduced if women chose to stay in STEM.
The Op-Ed is based on the co-authors’ study published in November in the journal, Psychological Science in the Public Interest. In their study, Ceci is first author and they are joined by two economists, Professor Donna Ginther and Professor Shulamit Kahn. The research team see that the sex variations within the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) represent a “contradiction” and a “paradox.” The logic of their argument is that because there are more women in STEM fields today in comparison to the 1970s, and because there are different patterns of attrition amongst various disciplines, this is evidence that sexism in academia is a moot point. The crux of their argument is simple: if there are differences between men and women’s career trajectories in STEM, these arise from personal preferences, and not due to a culture of sexism.
The are several problems with the Op-Ed, which overly simplifies the body of literature the authors reviewed, but the analysis of study itself is highly flawed. The most glaring issues include the concepts used, such as the authors’ confusion of sex and gender and how these relate to inequality. Another set of problems arise from the authors’ methods. Put simply: the way they measure gender inequality does not match the data they have available, and their interpretation and conclusions of the data are therefore invalid. In science, a study can be seen to be valid when the phenomenon measured matches the instruments used. The concepts, data collection and analysis need to match the authors’ research questions. This is not the case with this study.
Let’s start with the key concept the authors measured: gender inequality, which is also discussed as “academic sexism.”
ScienceAlert, a pop science news site, has published a “science news” story using a sexist image, which prominently features a woman’s breasts. Several issues arise about the use of sex to sell science publishing. One major issue relates to links between “everyday sexism” women encounter through their daily lives, including through the media, and the professional barriers that women face in STEM careers. Another issue relates to the scientific value of using sexism to specifically sell pop science reporting. The image is designed as “click bait.” We’ll analyse this in the context of the science in the article and the subsequent discussion on ScienceAlert’s Facebook page. The issue we highlight is how the blurring of sexist marketing and pop science news leads to a decreased public understanding of science, while also hurting educational campaigns to boost public awareness about women’s contribution in STEM.
This post covers the scientific and legal definitions of sexism, sexual harassment and sexual discrimination. We include an overview of the different ways in which sexism is described, such as hostile, benevolent, accidental or unintentional. These qualifiers of sexism can sometimes confuse people, as they invite people to see sexism as an individual or subjective idea. Sexism is neither – it is about how the collective interactions that happen at the everyday level are connected to institutional practices of harassment and discrimination. We provide examples of how sexist culture operates in at various levels of STEM, from undergraduate courses to gender inequality in pay, science publishing and recognition of women’s achievements. STEM Women seeks to move beyond superficial arguments about what sexism is and isn’t. The scientific evidence, some of which is included here, has established that inequality exists. We are looking for practical solutions to address inequality and lift the participation of women in STEM.
Continuing our Role Models series, STEM Women team member and sociologist Dr Zuleyka Zevallos shares how her primary school teachers and a series of children’s books inspired her scientific imagination. Reading stories of heroic women who used education and science to improve social justice helped Zuleyka see that girls, including those from minority groups who are denied rights, can and do make a positive impact on society.
The story of why I became interested in STEM starts when I migrated to Australia from Peru. I hadn’t yet turned eight and I didn’t speak any English. Thankfully, as luck would have it, we were enrolled into a highly progressive multicultural school in the inner city of Melbourne. My teachers, Mrs Rosa in Grade 3 and Miss Maria in Grade 4, worked hard to make non-English-speaking children like me feel included.
My teachers were amazing, celebrating every little task I mastered: from writing my first English sentence, to reading aloud to the class, to progressing through maths exercises. Our teachers took time to ensure that I did not get left behind. They also assigned us a tutor for extra English lessons for the first three months of school. They would look me in the eye and encourage me when I got the right answer, and I can remember once they stopped the class to announce that I has written a great short story. With small and large gestures, they imbued me with the courage and motivation to keep learning despite the language barrier. Read more ›