The issue of gender disparities within the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) is one that’s kept academics and feminists alike busy for centuries.
Since the emergence of such disciplines over the course of the 18th century, women have typically lagged behind their male counterparts in terms of representation; and considerable discourse has been sparked (as well as many the heated debate) so as to figure out why.
The Gender-Equality Paradox in STEM
It’s certainly an interesting phenomenon to consider — the concept that more progressive countries wherein you’d expect to find greater equality and thus an equal, if not larger, number of women working in STEM, the opposite is, in fact, occurring.
This was what was proposed by Gijsbert Stoet and David C. Geary, authors of the controversial 2018 study “The Gender-Equality Paradox in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education”; controversial because upon attempts by Harvard researchers to recreate the results produced by this study, they came up short.
In response, Stoet and Geary clarified in a reply to said researchers at Harvard, published February 2020 that “men are more likely than women to enter STEM careers because of endogenous interest”, marking a shift from their original hypothesis.
It begs the question: Is it simply a matter of interest? That women, because of their more nurturing and caring tendencies, opt for occupations characterised by providing aid (a notable example being nursing, a primarily female-dominated profession worldwide), whereas men, who express stronger inclinations towards working with things rather than people, dominate careers within the fields of mathematics and engineering?
Or is it indeed deep-rooted in inequality and gender discrimination? Do women exhibit lower levels of interest in STEM degrees not simply because of innate predispositions, but because they are discouraged, either actively or subliminally, from pursuing them at a young age?
This is, arguably, where much of the debate stems from. And perhaps there is no right or wrong answer. Nevertheless, open discussions and constructive conversations with those holding differing perspectives can only serve to help advance existing knowledge on the issue.
So Why the Underrepresentation?
According to this text published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), “discrimination, biases, social norms and expectations that influence the quality of education women receive and the subjects they study” are reasons cited as to blame for gender disparity in STEM.
However, some may argue that it’s not patriarchal barriers keeping women out of STEM as the above work by UNESCO might suggest, but rather the biological reality that women are hard-wired differently to men, and vice versa.
It’s not a concept unfamiliar to many — the psychological and behavioural differences between men and women has long been an area that’s generated substantial interest in popular culture. You might have even heard the saying “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus”. This metaphor, coined by the eponymously titled book, was authored by American relationship counsellor John Gray, and has sold millions worldwide.
Although the views expressed within it are now widely considered to be outdated (having been originally published in 1992), in essence, one of the central points Gray highlights is this — that women tend to think emotionally, whilst men tend to think logically.
Though many may decry this notion (as well as the book altogether), criticising it for stereotyping human psychology, some may also consider it naïve to believe men and women are truly wired the same — that there do, indeed, exist inherent and fundamental differences in the psychology of the sexes.
And it’s this belief that lends itself to the explanation of why certain professions are predominantly female, whilst others remain predominately male.
Yet, it could be considered just as naïve to believe we live in an ideal world where the barriers that, for centuries, held women back from achieving equality have been completely eliminated. Society has certainly come a long way in advancing women’s rights and shedding stereotypical notions of gender roles, but to act like women no longer experience discrimination of any kind on the basis of their gender, even in our modern-day 21st century, may be a dire mistake.
The Wider Gender Gap Context
According to the Global Gender Gap Report, annually published by the World Economic Forum, the Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI) is one that measures gender equality through “benchmark[ing] national gender gaps on economic, education, health and political criteria”.
The most recent 2020 edition of the report ranked Malaysia as 104th amongst 153 countries overall, and 86th within the subindex of Educational Attainment — one of four subindexes, with the other three being Economic Participation, Health and Survival and Political Empowerment.
Despite what may seem like average rankings for Malaysia, you might be pleased to know that though the computer industry is one typically dominated by men, this isn’t the case in Malaysia, where women comprise over 50% of employees within the field. Additionally, as of 2011, women held 49% of research positions in the sciences, technologies and innovations; a pretty much 50/50 split.
What’s Being Done About It?
There exists a plethora of resources and workshops hosted by organisations, both globally and within Malaysia, dedicated to inspiring young women to pursue their passions within STEM industries.
One such example is Women in Tech, a global movement with members spanning across 100+ countries, whose objectives revolve around the empowerment of women with the confidence and skills needed to excel in STEM fields.
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