If you haven’t heard about gender discrepancies and gender bias in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines, you’ve been living under a rock. However, recent research suggests this arena is evolving: in recent years biases may be reducing or reversing, and they are not universal. A nice overview of the issue and its complexities, including bias in gender bias studies, is discussed in David Miller’s recent article in The Conversation. (A side note, here is a great discussion on biases in science and how to avoid them).
To be honest, though, I was getting a bit tired of hearing that we “need to be aware of gender bias”. Because really, isn’t the aim to make it a null issue?
So here are my recommendations, on how to make gender a null issue:
- Be the better applicant. Gender bias studies often use the model of comparing reactions to, for example, job applications in which only the name is altered. How realistic is this? Recent research suggests there is no gender discrimination in grant and manuscript reviewing, interviewing, or hiring. So if you want it, do good research, be the better applicant, be confident, and go for it. (And stay tuned, I’ll be blogging about how to do good research soon!)
Know the contemporary causes and implications of gender discrepancy. If we keep tooting the same old horn it will not only get old, but we’ll miss the opportunities to fix the real contemporary issues, and potentially create new ones. Recent research suggests that gender discrepancies remain due to fertility and lifestyle choices (which affect women in all fields), whereas it is career preferences and (to a lesser extent) ability differences that reduce the representation of women in math-based fields (note, this is not all STEM fields, only the more math-intensive ones – women are actually becoming the majority in biology, and in human and animal medicine).
- Push for good working conditions for all. Lifestyle and fertility choices are both free and constrained. When this is constrained, this is clearly an issue. While they do impact women, they also increasingly impact men. Most people want more time for themselves and their family. Lower working hours, and opportunities for job-sharing, part-time, or other flexible work arrangements will benefit both men and women. So let’s all push for this.
Foster involvement and talent by encouraging passion, mentoring and sponsoring. Freely-made career preferences and lifestyle choices are potentially a more ingrained cultural issue. From a young age girls are encouraged into non-math-intensive careers, they’re given stories about how males are more superior in math and spatial ability (which are somewhat true, but greatly exaggerated), subsequently have less confidence in their math ability, and choose alternative careers (or perhaps in general they biologically prefer them, but like math ability, I’d guess this is a minor factor). Sheryl Sandberg recounts that girls are not pushed or encouraged to succeed, and whereas ‘likeability’ and success are positively correlated in males, they’re negatively correlated in females. These girls don’t need scare stories about gender bias. They need encouragement, heroes, support, and sponsoring. So let’s face up to the contemporary challenge, and stop saying that “blue is a boys colour, but you can wear it if you want to”, and start saying “blue looks great on you!”