Statistics worldwide show that women remain underrepresented in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) jobs and leadership positions. However, there are many reasons why having more gender equality for careers within this domain would be highly beneficial. While these reasons may seem obvious to many of us, scientific experiments give evidence that could help us close the gender gap once and for all.
The following studies haven’t been selected to demonstrate if one gender is more intelligent or emotionally capable than the other. Instead, they give us a clearer framework to better understand our perception of the role of women in STEM and leadership careers. They also give us a different perspective, helping us see why a more equal combination of men and women in leadership and STEM jobs would improve creativity and innovation. As a consequence, the change would lead to positive economic and socio-cultural change.
What these experiments have in common is that they debunk false beliefs that are rooted in our culture and education. By revealing empirical and scientific evidence of their falsity, they open the doors to different perspectives about gender equality in the workplace.
1. Boys are not better than girls at math
Have you ever experienced “math anxiety?” This concept is the amount of anxiety that people anticipate or experience when thinking about or doing math. And guess what? More women than men seem to experience “math anxiety,” due to external reasons such as cultural explanations as well as how we are taught math.
A study conducted in 2017 by a team of psychologists from the University of Glasgow and the Universities of California (Irvine) and Missouri in the US, discovered that “girls were more anxious about mathematics in 80% of the countries surveyed.” The survey was carried out among nearly half a million 15-year-old pupils in 68 countries.
The focus of the study was based on previous research that found that although they did equally well in their math classes, girls were more anxious about math than boys. This suggests that math anxiety is more related to our perception of how good or bad we think we are, rather than the actual ability.
Delving into the differences by country, researchers found that “the gender difference in mathematics anxiety was greater in more gender-equal and developed countries.” And they also noticed that “girls’ mathematics anxiety was not related to the level of their mothers’ engagement in STEM careers.”
This suggests that women are just as good as men at math. However, there is a perception issue, where women tend to think, more than men, that they are not good at the subject.
2. STEM careers are not anti-social
The stereotype of a scientist who spends hours in a bleak lab, or a mathematician student without a social life, doesn’t seem to be very appealing to women. But the reality is, STEM jobs are not necessarily anti-social.
A study conducted by the University of Zurich in 2017 analyzes prosocial and selfish behaviors in men and women to provide a neurobiological account for the hypothesis that “women are known to have stronger prosocial preferences than men.” Scientists found that “in females, the dopaminergic reward system is more sensitive to shared than to selfish rewards, while the opposite is true for males.”
If women’s brains show higher interest for prosocial behavior, changing our perception of STEM jobs may make these careers more attractive to female professionals, explains Saga Briggs in an article from InformED.
But are STEM jobs really not sociable? The reality is, STEM positions cover a wide variety of professions, from doctors to computer programmers, and some of these professionals are more isolated than others. Nonetheless, as DaNel Hogan, director of the STEMAZing Project explains, we need to change the perception and communicate how “STEM careers can make people’s lives easier and make the world a better place” to encourage more women to pursue these exciting careers.
3. The truth behind women’s “lack of focus”
Research published by The Royal Society in 2016 contributes to our knowledge about the anatomical differentiations in men’s and women’s brains, in order to explain the well-documented differences in the behavior of both genders.
As you may know, the left side of our brain is responsible for analytic thought and logic, while the right side deals with holistic thinking, creativity, and intuition. In other words, the left hemisphere of the brain deals with what is known, while the right region deals with the exploration of the unknown.
During the experiment, the group of scientists observed how women’s left and right brains show more signs of connectivity than men’s brains, while men’s brains showed more activity and connections on the left side. They perceived “an increased structural connectivity related to the motor, sensory and executive function subnetworks in males,” while in women, “subnetworks associated with social motivation, attention and memory tasks had higher connectivity.”
As previous studies concluded, men seem to be more problem-solvers, while women tend to be solution-seekers. The main difference between these two operating modes is that in problem-solving, the bigger picture is less taken into account. And a second deduction is that women seem to have a lack of focus, when in fact they are looking at wider horizons.
When applying these experiments to the gender gap in STEM and leadership, it seems reasonable to think that with the right education in place, women’s “math anxiety” would be reduced, and more women would be interested in these types of roles.
On the other hand, studies also show that women tend to go for more social careers, so by really working to change the perception that STEM roles are anti-social and solitary, we have an opportunity to make them more attractive to women.
Finally, while extensive research has been carried out on men’s and women’s brain’s and behavior differences, research is not always conclusive and therefore more needs to be conducted. However, there seem to be some slight differences between men and women’s brains that suggest that by having them work together, we can pool those differences to create a stronger and more cohesive team. These may lead to better results, more creative thinking, and innovation—and more importantly, more fulfilled and satisfied employees and societies.
For more on women in technology, see The Next Frontier For Women In IT: Cloud Computing.