“People say that pretty girls often mess up with calculations.”
“If there are a lot of numbers involved, better call a man to do the job!”
Experiments have shown that men and women perceive women as being worse at math.
The world’s major academics of science were founded in the 17th century during the European Renaissance. When was the first woman admitted into the Academy of Sciences in Paris? In 1979!
Even today, math-based careers remain dominated by men. 85% of engineers in the world are men.
Around 75% of people in the data and AI industry are also men, and 70% of those employed in scientific research – men.
So, aren’t women good at research relating to science?
Not at all. Studies have found that there’s little difference between boys’ and girls’ performance in math at school, those differences depend on the age and skill level of the student, what type of math they are attempting and how big of a dissimilarity is needed to say that boys’ and girls’ math performance is truly different.
Another difference, though, is that girls express far higher anxiety levels about their maths performance. This is the result of girls getting influenced by societal notions, reinforced by their teachers, peers and parents, that they don’t have’ natural inclination’ or talent for math and science, usually regarded as boys’ subjects.
This stereotyping of men being naturally more gifted at math and science, is pervasive. For the longest time, popular culture reinforced the trope of the ‘genius scientist,’ who is usually male, White, and dishevelled.
A 2016 study found that people were more likely to ascribe ‘light bulb’ moments of genius or effortless brilliance to male scientists, while they were more likely to attribute women scientists’ success to sustained hard work.
When we frame this “raw brilliance” as a male characteristic, society subtly reinforces the notion that women can’t be pioneers in these fields where genius is required.
But it’s not like women haven’t been successful when they’ve pursued science or math; just that society has often failed to recognise their successes.
Think of Rosalind Franklin with the double helix, Margaret Knight who invented the paper bag machine, and Ada Lovelace’s computer programming findings. And unfortunately, a hyper masculine, hostile environment is the reality in STEM fields even today.
For female students, not only is there a lack of role models, but they are far more likely to be subjected to harassment or bullying from their fellow students and faculty.
“Math skills are considered essential to success in STEM fields. Historically, boys have outperformed girls in math, but in the past few decades the gender gap has narrowed and today girls are doing as well as boys in math on average (Hyde et al., 2008). Girls are earning high school math and science credits at the same rate as boys and are earning slightly higher grades in these classes.” – U.S. Department of Education, National Centre for Education Statistics, 2007.
A leading proponent of gender in science is Prof. Londa Schiebinger of Stanford University, who coined the term “gendered innovations” in 2005, and launched it in 2009 to describe scientific gender as a factor in research.
Even in countries like the U.S. and Australia that have managed to increase women’s enrolment in STEM subjects in college, work cultures often make them feel like they don’t belong. For instance, despite women getting higher grades in Engineering courses than men, 40% of American women with engineering degrees either leave or never enter the field.
But women around the world are beginning to question these biases that are keeping us out of STEM. To be able to create a scientific culture that is truly robust and expansive, we need to rethink how we conceive of scientific aptitude. Because it’s not just bad for gender equality, but also for science itself.
Scholars point out that as more women have entered fields like medicine, biology, primatology, it has actually expanded the general knowledge created in these fields, impacting not what just scientists choose to study, but the methodology they use to study it.
So, let’s commit to making scientific enquiry and practice more inclusive, because science and society only stand to gain from it.
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