One in three science researchers is a woman, according to UNESCO figures. That paints a dire picture of gender equality in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). How do we get girls to battle their "mathematics anxiety"? And why should we?
A few years ago, Latin America came closest to gender equality (44.7%) in research and development – almost one in two employees was a woman. The rest of the world wasn't doing so well: The Arab States 39.9%, North America and Western Europe 32.3%, and South and West Asia 19%.
But why do girls stay clear of STEM subjects? A lack of confidence and gender stereotypes are two reasons, argues Professor Gijsbert Stoet, who researches psychology, education and gender at Leeds Beckett University in the United Kingdom.
"Girls have 'mathematics anxiety' and are generally more anxious, boys are also more likely to exaggerate their own competence than girls – undeservedly so – and that's true for anything, not just STEM," he says.
When it comes to education, Stoet believes there's a quick fix that many countries could import from China, where students have to study mathematics until age 18. "In many European countries, we force children to deselect subjects at an early age, when peer pressure and gender stereotypes are felt acutely," Prof. Stoet says.
"I think we should take that option away from our young students. Older girls might then say, 'I thought mathematics wasn't for me, but actually I like it'."
Author Tuuti Piippo points out that education, however, is just one part of a larger puzzle. In her interviews with women in technology, for a 2015 book called Futuremakers, many of the women spoke at length about their home environment.
"They had access to computers from an early age because of their parents," Piippo says. "They were encouraged to take appliances apart to learn how they work and taught how to fix things like car engines by their parents, many of whom were engineers. That had little to do with gender."
But, she points out, schools have to pick up the baton. "Kids are naturally curious and creative, and I think it’s the job of parents and educators to make sure it’s encouraged and cultivated," says Piippo, who praises her home country Finland's decision to teach first-graders to code. "You can teach programming or science in so many ways that will spark the interest of different kids, and find thousands of ideas on the web for free now."
Culture plays its part too, says Piippo who has worked in both Helsinki and San Francisco. While wary of generalisations, she did witness a more out-spoken go-getter culture in the United States. "It’s much easier to be ambitious and vocal about your goals in the US, regardless of your gender," she says. "Building things that would make an impact was the general atmosphere in Silicon Valley. But of course, the competition is fierce and the very masculine ‘bro culture’ is also a reality."
Last year, a Google employee claimed that women's biology made them less fit for computing. The man found some support in online fora, but a wider backlash ensued.
As Hackernoon Magazine pointed out, a woman, Ada Lovelace, invented the first computer program – 175 years ago. The Hackernoon writer also went on to slam the man for "cherry picking studies" to give his claims a false veneer of scientific credibility.
Lovelace or not, historical facts don't protect women today. "Many women in science and tech get systematically harassed and trolled online just for stating their opinions publicly," says Piippo. "It’s gotten much worse, especially on Twitter, in the recent years."
The backlash is somewhat paradoxical - if companies had equal access to male and female scientists, new-hires would know they were the best person for the job. There are some, often quite vocal, men in technology companies who fear they lose out on jobs because companies want equality and will thus pick a woman just because of her gender (or as a contributing factor in the hiring process), Piippo points out.
This scramble for women means a girl who decides to study STEM subjects quite possibly has an advantage, argues Professor Stoet. "If my daughter chooses to go to university, of course I'd recommend that she pick a STEM subject, because she will never be out of a job," he says.
Yet he also warns that the focus on STEM entails a risk that society stigmatises women who choose women-dominated industries such as journalism and health care. "Sure, we need engineers," he says, "but we also need reporters and nurses."
Which brings us back to the fundamental question: why encourage gender equality, in STEM and elsewhere? Justice is the easy one: no one should be held back by their gender. What, then, is the value? If no one is held back, companies will have access to the best of the best.
And diversity means diverse ideas and diverse solutions. "Non-homogenous teams are simply smarter," the Harvard Business Review said in a recent article. "Working with people who are different from you may challenge your brain to overcome its stale ways of thinking and sharpen its performance."
Finally, what technology is used for – what problems are being addressed – will change at the hands of more diverse teams of scientists, researchers and entrepreneurs. "If women are building more products and making funding decisions, more of these products and services will cater the needs of women better," Piippo offers as an example.
Piippo also hopes that greater equality will make the workplace safer, more comfortable and productive. "For women already in the fields, it will possibly be easier to breathe at work if it’s more normal to be a woman in that context," she says. "Maybe there would be less harassment and more time to focus on what matters, more recognition for work you’ve done and less of someone else taking credit, better chance of promotion and more interesting projects – to name a few upsides."
And another upside that Professor Stoet would like to underline is what a STEM career can mean for a woman's entire life, not just her career. "Fields where you can make some money offer an escape route," he says. "Going into programming, for example, is a way out when your home country clings to old-fashioned gender roles and offers limited social mobility."