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We need to stop asking this question if we want to see more women in STEM

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Lauren Geall
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We all know there aren’t enough women in STEM – but this viral Twitter thread might have the solution.

Women still make up less than a quarter of the people employed in core STEM occupations in the UK. According to a 2018 survey by campaign body WISE (Women Into Science and Engineering), only 22% of the people working in core STEM occupations are women. And that gets worse when you look at specific areas of STEM in particular – the Engineering sector is only 12% female, and in Management, only 13% of the roles are taken by women.

So it’s no surprise that people both in the sector and outside the sector want to see that changed, because the impact of a male-dominated STEM sector spreads way further than inequality within the industry. Take the recent reports that virtual assistants such as Alexa, Siri and Cortana reflect, reinforce and spread gender bias as one example. Without more women behind the scenes developing these products, the gender bias is only set to get worse. 

Women in office
Less than a quarter of those in core STEM occupations are women.

So how do we go about addressing this inequality? For a while now, the focus has been on getting more girls into STEM – whether that be by offering scholarships and development programmes, raising awareness of the gender inequality in the industries or simply telling girls they are capable of taking on these kinds of careers – but that doesn’t seem to be making enough of a difference. 

That’s because, according to a now viral thread, we’re asking the wrong questions. Engineer and writer Prof Dr Lucy Rogers took to her Twitter to share her opinion about why more girls aren’t getting into STEM – and the results are thought-provoking. 

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“How do we get more girls in STEM? WRONG QUESTION,” she begins.

Instead, she turned that question on its head – and put the responsibility into the hands of the people already working in those industries.

“What can YOU do to make the workplace a place women want to work,” she asks, “where they are treated equally, respected and not belittled by men’s assumptions about their abilities.”

The problem, she argues, is that male-dominated work spaces are making women feel uncomfortable – not that women don’t have a genuine interest in STEM subjects in the first place. This atmosphere discourages women from getting into the career in the first place for fear of being excluded and/or alienated by their co-workers – and is something that needs to be addressed.

In response to the Tweet, users from within and outside the STEM industries shared their support for Dr Rogers’ opinion, agreeing that there needed to be a change in culture in order for more women to want to get involved. 

“I worked for an engineering firm a few years ago and my interview actually had a question about being ok with inappropriate language and behaviour as they needed the ‘right kind of woman’ to work there,” one user shared. “I’m not easily offended but surely that culture is an issue!”

“Thank you,” another person wrote. “It’s not about getting girls interested. It’s about dismantling toxic work environments & shattering the persistent STEM glass ceiling.”

This isn’t the first time the impact a male-dominated workplace can have on a woman’s career has been brought to light. Studies have repeatedly shown that gender stereotyping and discrimination in the workplace leads to women feeling undervalued and under-utilised – something which often leads to them leaving their job completely and finding a career in another, more inclusive industry. 

And a fantastic short released by Pixar earlier this year demonstrated this perfectly. The animated clip follows the story of a character called Purl who finds herself as the only female employee in a workplace full of men. Although Purl fights through the isolation and ends up bringing greater equality to the office, the feeling of being the only woman in a completely male workplace resonated with a lot of people.

And there are also the sexist assumptions which often belittle women in STEM workplaces. Just last month, Lane Fox, founder of lastminute.com, revealed she was called “Tinkerbell” during a presentation in which she was surrounded by men, and is calling for “really clear legislation” from the government to create an inclusive environment within the tech industry. 

Perhaps if we spent less time trying to get more girls interested in STEM and tackled the problem at the heart of this issue, the percentage of women in the industry wouldn’t be so shockingly low. After all, women have historically demonstrated we’re interested in tech, too – take Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer.

What an absolute legend.

Images: Getty

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Lauren Geall

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