Recently the Royal Society of Edinburgh released its report looking at the position of women in STEM in Scotland and what ought to be done by their Government; it also looked more broadly at the situation across the UK. The report, Tapping all Our Talents, covers all too familiar territory. It rehearses the well-documented loss of women along the career pipeline, mourns the low numbers of women starting off in some disciplines and considers the cultural barriers that women face. Much of the data presented is not new, but what is new is the Scottish focus, and the feeling that perhaps the Scottish Parliament might be more responsive to doing something beyond hand-wringing. A clear set of recommendations have been put forward, including building on Sally Davies’ call for departments to have an Athena Swan Silver award if they are to receive future funding. In the Scottish case it was proposed that
All Scottish Universities should, within 2 years, have in place a strategy to bring all their STEM departments to the minimum standard of an Athena Swan Silver award (or equivalent); within 3-5 years the majority of departments should have achieved this level.
This will be quite a tall order. Currently, although the University of Edinburgh has two departments with Silver awards, I cannot see any others in Scotland at all; Edinburgh also has an associated bronze department, in the form of the Roslin Institute. But, besides Edinburgh, only Strathclyde has a University Bronze award and without this minimum level of commitment, departments cannot even start applying for individual awards. It would be nice to think all the Vice Chancellors in Scotland will be avidly reading this report and summoning appropriate people together to say ‘Get on with it’, but I suspect that would be being overly optimistic. Furthermore, a further recommendation was
The governors of each Learned Body should publicise a statement welcoming and encouraging the full participation of women in that Body and its academic discipline.
Given that this report has been published by one such learned body, it would have been nice if they could have set the ball rolling by including their own exemplar statement. Instead, the President’s foreword merely says
We are keen this report will lead to a coherent strategy, particularly in Scotland, to address this most important issue. We stand ready to assist Governments and other key agents to develop and monitor this strategy.
I fear that is a statement without too many teeth, because it passes the buck elsewhere. Unsurprising, but frustrating.
I read this report whilst I was also reading Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender (finally I’ve got around to it; I feel I should have read it a year or more ago) . It is depressing reading for anyone who cares about gender (in)equality because what it highlights is that by the time we are considering the fate of girls going to university we have to a large extent already lost the battle, certainly in disciplines such as mine of physics, with their seemingly strong masculine cultural bias. Fine debunks much of the neuroscience that is used to support the claim that boys’ and girls’ brains are necessarily hard-wired differently. I assume she is right on this, but I’m not going to go down that path here since I haven’t sifted the evidence myself. What I found much more depressing is the careful presentation of facts which demonstrate just how much our societal norms notionally split babies by gender from the moment of birth (and possibly even before birth if the parents are informed about the sex of the baby in advance). However much parents may think they are bringing up their children in a non-gendered way, it seems to be inescapable. The evidence demonstrates just how much children pick up cues, which may be non-verbal ones at the earliest ages, including those which implicitly stress differences between the genders.
As children try to work out their personal identities, the difference between ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ is as fundamental and omnipresent as it gets – and they receive the clear messages that collectively society gives out about the attributes implicitly associated with that distinction. Inevitably they are likely to ‘hear’ the message that boys are noisy, into everything and generally vigorous and enquiring, whereas girls are ‘expected’ to be good, docile, nurturing and passive. Parents may do all they can to counteract these expectations, but others around (including other children as they mingle more at playgroup and school) are likely to be less scrupulous. Parents may themselves be unaware of their own implicit associations between gender and stereotype. If you don’t believe you personally suffer from this, try taking one of the Implicit Association tests I have mentioned before on this blog (for instance here and here). Even most practicing female scientists, myself included, still find an unconscious tendency to associate words associated with science more with men than women. Every time I do the test and find I still do this, I get dispirited. I feel it is no surprise if random members of the population do this if I do, despite my deep-seated belief that women and science really do mix.
So, we have a society which creates cultural hurdles for girls who want not to cherish their dolls but take them to pieces to see how they work, or for girls who scorn to play with pink Lego representing a veterinary surgery but want to build rockets instead. If we are to see more girls opting to study physics at A level (or equivalent), we need to present younger girls with more visions of choices that involve the stereotypically male occupations and childhood diversions which are not simply passive or nurturing. Equally, we will only get a more balanced intake by gender into Vet Schools if the Lego Vet’s office is not pink, and encourage boys to cuddle pets rather than tease them. One of the points Fine stresses is that different cultures around the world see very different proportions of boys and girls taking up subjects like engineering. This observation reinforces the idea that engineering is not simply a subject girls are necessarily disqualified from by the way their brains were constructed in the womb, but has a substantial cultural aspect.
The RSE report is all well and good. Improving cultures in our science departments so that women students and staff are not further discouraged should be a high priority and I am all in favour of it. But something much more radical needs to be done in the early years if we are finally to reach a point where we don’t lose many smart girls from the pipeline before they ever discover the joys of science.