20 December 2018

Why don’t (enough) girls study tech subjects?

It’s probable that a range of different factors inhibits girls from taking up STEM subjects at school.  For one, it may be a lack of a teacher (or a poor teacher), for another a class full of arrogant and dismissive boys, for yet another it may be family, religious and/or other social pressures. It could be an awareness of the sexism that is all too prevalent in IT and, whisper it, it might also be that perhaps some girls simply don’t like doing techie things. I think these can all be changed over the medium term, but let’s look at some of them in more detail.

Nurture or nature?

As I mentioned in the first blog of this series, the survey by Tech City UK of c. 1,000 15-21 year olds across the UK, suggests that tech was only the sixth most popular career choice … and 45% of young women believe they “did not have the skills to work in technology.”

Some studies attribute the disinterest in STEM by girls to unconscious biases reinforcing stereotypical behaviour inherent in society, but many of these (e.g. the research which suggests that women are put off by “male” words –such as “responsibility” in job ads) seem to simply make the point that men and women are indeed different and respond to different things in different ways.

On the other hand, there are studies which suggest that the problem really is deep rooted in our natures. Professional provocateur, Sunday Times and Spectator columnist Rod Liddle, is firmly of this opinion, writing recently, “The persistence of such blatant sexism [referring to the discrepancies in pay that are common in showbiz] persuades some of the more stupid feminists to subscribe to the patently absurd thesis that there is effectively no meaningful difference between men and women and that disparities in pay and employment are simply the consequence of the vile patriarchy. It does not matter how many scientific studies, or indeed the march of history, disprove this ludicrous misapprehension: they will not engage.”

Liddle goes on to cite a study in Sweden “which showed that the greater the equality of opportunity in society between men and women, the greater the differentiation in what men and women choose to do. In other words, the differences between us are innate.”

Sometimes, I wonder if he has a point. There is strong evidence that, no matter what is done, the numbers studying the relevant subjects are hardly shifting in the UK.  For example, the percentage of girls studying physics at undergraduate level peaked at c. 22% in 2009 but has not really moved since then, although in absolute terms the number of girls studying the subject has grown slowly (c. 3%) year on year – the same percentage as for boys). It’s not as if we haven’t been aware of this and also throwing lots of ideas/money at the problem. However, as the Institute of Physics explains, since the early 1990s, the proportion of girls in the A-level physics cohort has not fallen below 20.7% but not risen above 23.1% and in 2018 the only subject to have a smaller proportion of girls than physics was, wait for it, computer science, where females made up a meagre 11.8% of entrants.

If we then look at the broader employment picture, we all know there are not many women working in tech.  WIRED magazine recently worked with Montreal startup Element AI to estimate the diversity of leading machine learning researchers - and found that only 12 percent were women.  WIRED also noted that Google’s AI research pages listed 641 people working on “machine intelligence,” of whom only 10 percent were women while Facebook admitted that only 22 percent of its technical workers are women and also declined to provide details on the diversity of its AI teams.

Then, from Atlantic.com, we learn that only 27 per cent of all students taking the AP Computer Science exam in the USA are female and just 18 per cent of American computer-science college degrees go to women. This in the United States, where many college men are proud to describe themselves as “male feminists” and girls are taught they can be anything they want to be…

It would not be too hard to conclude that the cards are simply stacked too high against girls and consequently this may result in fewer girls studying the same subjects as men. But I don’t believe it is that simple.

Why are we where we are?

There is evidence that countries (typically Western) where gender equality is more advanced actually perform worse in getting women into STEM. A paper published by American psychologists Gijsbert Stoet shows that “the more gender-equal the country, as measured by the World Economic Forum’s  Global Gender Gap Index, the larger this gap between boys and girls in having science as their best subject.” Compare the figures for the USA and the UK above with Algeria, where 41 percent of college graduates in STEM subjects are female  (despite the fact that employment discrimination against women is rife in Algeria). Yet academic studies show that girls and boys’ aptitude for science is about the same and in nearly all countries girls would have been capable of college-level science and maths classes if they had enrolled in them (my emphasis).

The academics conclude that, “it’s not that gender equality discourages girls from pursuing science. It’s that it allows them not to if they’re not interested.” Furthermore, in more gender-equal countries like the UK, “it could just be that, feeling financially secure and on equal footing with men, some women will always choose to follow their passions, rather than whatever labor economists recommend. And those passions don’t always lie within science.”

On the other hand, there are many who think this is a lot of hooey.  The Royal Society of Edinburgh’s 2018 study found that gender stereotyping begins at birth and is reinforced at school, saying that “Misogyny and sexual harassment in schools prevent girls from pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and maths,” and “more needs to be done” to improve gender equality.  They go on, “unconscious, and sometimes conscious, biases” pervade Scottish society and deter women from pursuing STEM careers.  Their solution?  “Educational institutions and employers must have a zero-tolerance stance on misogynistic behaviour and sexual harassment in study and workplaces, while developing cultures that minimise unconscious bias and gender stereotyping.

The Guardian, in an article from March 2018, poses the question, why are there fewer women in STEM careers even in more gender-neutral countries?

They suggest that, “cultural effects suggest the gender gap in Stem careers should disappear in more gender-neutral countries. Yet we still find a higher proportion of men in Stem-related careers than women, even in gender-neutral Sweden.

This quote is based on a study of 1,327 Swedish secondary school students. It explored “why more boys are attracted to Stem subjects at university and more girls are attracted to subjects in the Heed (health, elementary education and domestic) spheres” and concluded, “This difference was partially explained by “social belongingness”: teenagers felt they would fit in better in subjects that had more of their own gender. But another important factor was “self-efficacy”: the belief that one can succeed in a domainWe tend to approach domains where we feel we are competent and avoid those in which we do not. Boys and girls both had high self-efficacy in the Heed subjects, but boys chose not to pursue them. The researchers suggest that this may reflect the low social value and rewards associated with careers in these spheres. 

“In contrast, girls on average had much lower self-efficacy ratings in Stem, despite outperforming boys across school subjects. Even in one of the most gender-neutral countries in the world and despite the evidence of their own marks, girls still seem to be succumbing to the stereotype that girls aren’t as capable in these subjects.”

Is it all down to nature or nurture?  While I agree that men and women are (obviously) different in certain respects, from my experience recruiting to the industry there seems no reason to me why females cannot “do tech.”  We are as intelligent as men, we have enquiring minds and we can be equally tough and capable of leadership and collaboration.  Set against that, I don’t kid myself that IT is largely a male realm, with more than its fair share of machista attitudes, none of which are likely to encourage women to become involved.  But I don’t believe these cannot be changed and that this can be done without reducing the workplace to an anodyne, humourless, politically correct and sterile environment.

More specifically, there are things we can do to change society’s (if not Mr Liddle’s) approach to women and tech. These will be the subject of my final blog. And you’ll be glad to know it’s (slightly) shorter than this one.

Nikola Kelly, MD, Be-IT

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