Why We Need to Start Young

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.




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9 Responses to Why We Need to Start Young

  1. Really interesting, and depressing, post. I must read this book. I used to take dolls apart and had no interest in them except to create new outfits (I am still clothes-obsessed!), but I also used to take apart almost anything I could find, and then get frustated because I could not figure out how to put a clockwork mouse back together (the house became littered with partial mechanical rodents, until my parents refused to buy any more). The interesting thing is that I was largely brought up by my father until the age of 7, and he was an engineer, so encouraged me in all this, I suppose. The reason for this was that he took early retirement while my mother had a demanding professional job- so again I had a very different role model from the one that was traditional, and remains so I suppose. I was always encouraged to speak up and have my own opinions- and as an only chlild, never compared to brothers- again unusual. The thing is that gender sterotypes still kick in. As I’ve said before, I was discouraged from being an engineer, by female teachers at a girls’ school. I still speak out, but it gets me into trouble occasionally, because, I think, even in academia some senior men are uncomfortable with a forthright woman who says what she means. I have been told I am rude and disrespectful- but I am certain a man would not be so criticised. Women are, apparently, supposed to be quiet and pliant- so it can be hard for those of us who have been brought up not knowing this! Not to say I regret my unusal background at all, but still, it’s not the whole answer when others have more traditional assumptions

  2. I have to say I thought the test itself was biased in that it related the male science thing first and then, when we were used to that lot of word/finger coordination, it changed to the female science thing. I’d like to know what would happen if the test was given the other way round with the female science thing trained in first. I am very suspicious of the results given as they don’t seem to relate in any way to my upbringing or my beliefs. Only to the culture I grew up in.

    On the other hand, I thoroughly agree with the idea that this stuff needs to be dealt to before we waste yet another generation of academics.

    viv in nz

  3. frank allan says:

    There is now real inequality in every worthwhile field, and it’s inequality that affects both genders, and all ethnic groups. It’s inequality that directly reflects an individual’s economic background. Since the virtual demise of grammar schools, often the only way up is through an expensive private education.
    Just over 7% of all British children, rising to around 18% of pupils aged over 16, go to independent schools. The top of all professions are dominated by this small elite, and they are recruited from less than 20% of the population. The introduction of prohibitive university fees, (that is prohibitive to the poor not to the rich. After all if Daddy can afford nine grand a term school fees, nine grand a year at Uni will not cause any problem).
    Repaying a loan when you are twenty five years old, earning £25000 a year, with a partner, child, rent, rates, electricity, gas, fares to work etc that’s a problem. With expensive childcare rarely an option, one person of a pair is housebound or are the poor expected to forego having relationships and families? Work life balance to the economically challenged means dumping the kids on grandparents.
    As a consequence of two pay-packets being needed to run a household women are becoming mothers at much older age than in the past, leaving grandparents in their seventies looking after young children in our case sometimes five at a time, I suspect that’s as much stress as anyone can take, we sometimes wish we could leak from our pipeline.
    In recent years employers have seen fit to halt training and apprenticeships in favour of recruiting eastern Europeans who have already been trained at someone else’s expense, so all avenues are closing. I suspect that’s a problem that does not affect university professors, cabinet ministers or many other high fliers.
    There is a lot of indignation on the internet over gender and ethnic discrimination, but I have found very little conern about economic discrimination. I worry about the future of all my grandchildren boys as well as girls.
    That’s got that off my chest. Thank you for listening.
    Best regards

    • Knutty Knitter
      Perhaps you could see if your suspicion about bias from the order you do the test is right by repeating it several times in quick succession. Maybe you’ll get better but, as I say, I never seem to which I find depressing.

      You’ll be interested to know the Royal Society hasn just started a substantial piece of BIS-funded work about diversity in science which has a large component looking at socio-economic issues. It is clearly a very substantial problem.

  4. Pat Morton says:

    I am afraid it is not a case of choosing one before the other…it is chicken and egg – all the promotion to girls about a gender friendly career in science tends to be shattered unless it is happening in real terms further on down the career path. I congratulate Scotland for investing in women in SET..but let us hope they do not think the project will be achieved quickly – and they can invest in girls too.

  5. BB says:

    I think I have probably bored you enough with my opinions on this issue earlier in the blog. I think at a societal level the possibly more important issue than girls not being encouraged towards active, fighty, engineering type toys, is boys not being encouraged towards dolls, sharing role play type toys. If we wonder why the rate of violence is higher in men then we probably don’t need to look beyond that.

    At a stem level, I am less sure what the exact problem is. Almost all childrens toys can be played with in an enquiring way (my 10 month old currently spends hours putting things in and out of a box with a transparent lid and proving to herself that you see through things that your hand wont go through). Maybe the problem is in making the connection between inquiry/research based play and stem/scientific method?

    At a personal level my daughter went to her first ever birthday party recently and gravitated immediately towards a toy pink handbag (much to my mortification). She proceeded to pull out the lipstick and then sit staring at it….I realised she has never seen lipstick before and certainly not seen it being used (which cheered me up a bit). She spent the rest of the afternoon taking the balls out of the ball pool one by one and delivering them to people – I still think she will be a scientist rather than a pizza delivery girl though….

  6. A rather messy experiment is having boy/girl twins as your first children. I used to say there was literally no time to be subtle about gender issues. You do learn that children have their own personalities from the very first. Toys that flood the house are all over the spectrum and the twins had the freedom to choose what they wanted. Do I remember how gender specific they chose – heck no. I do know they played a lot of games that involved no toys but lots of excavation of sofa cushions and pillows.
    (Interestingly, for years, I got the question – how do you tell them apart?)

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