Addressing gender diversity in STEM: thoughts from the Gender Summit

Author: Toni Collis
Posted: 21 Nov 2013 | 11:05

If you have read any of my previous blogs, you will know that I have an interest in the lack of women working in the field of HPC and Physics. Last week I was lucky to be able to attend the third international Gender Summit in Washington DC, which aims to address, discuss and share ideas on how to improve the participation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

The summit included 130 speakers and over 600 attendees from 35 countries around the world. This was the first summit outside the EU - the first two were both held at the European Parliament in Brussels and was focused around examining gender issues and the impact this would have on the implementation of the upcoming HORIZON 2020 (the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation).

Much of the summit focused on good practice and how the experiences of women from a very early age alter their perceptions of whether they should engage with STEM, whether they want to engage in STEM and how to keep women and girls engaged in STEM. The summit did go further than just gender, discussing ethnic minority and LGBT participation in STEM careers, though the focus returned to gender.

Throughout the three days of plenary sessions, workshops and panel discussions there were several recurring themes including mentoring, implicit/unconscious bias and how to include gender in research. I will revisit these in later blog posts, but today I thought I would share just a few little tidbits that I collected during the summit.

  • The gender pay gap is still 17% in the EU and 19% in the US for women and men doing the same jobs. However, the good news is that this gap is still narrowing.

  • In the EU there are 506.8 million people, 52% of whom are female. In 2011 64.3% of the EU population was employed. However, this is comprised of 70.1% of the male population and 58.5% of the female population in employment. Despite the recent financial crises this is better than in 2001 when only 54.3% of women were in employment.

  • Men and women behave differently in a research group; women are more likely to want to reproduce a result to check it and men more likely to just 'move-on' to the next result.

  • There is a gender difference in how we respond to vaccinations. Women really do experience a stronger response (so we really have a good reason to complain). This has possibly resulted in vaccines not making it to market as at trial stages data has not been gender disaggregated, and so the overall efficacy was not seen as acceptable, but when broken down by gender there is clear evidence that the vaccine worked in sex. Understanding immune responses could result in providing women with lower doses of 'flu vaccines in times of shortage or changing the vaccination schedules based on gender in young children to enhance the protection the vaccines provide.

  • At 8th grade (US education system), countries with stronger gender stereotyping have higher grade gap in STEM subjects between boys and girls (Nosek, 2010). So outreach might just be the most important thing we can do to improve the gender balance in STEM disciplines later in life.

  • Gender is the first category that humans learn (at 9 months - Leinbach & Fagot, 1993) and the first stereotype they create (2 years - Hill & Flom, 2007).

  • Horizon 2020 will have a 'gender dimension' to it, which will address the desire for equal participation in research teams, how to incorporate gender into research and encouraging women to take more senior positions. At the time of writing this, it is not clear how this will be implemented when Horizon2020 is launched next month, but watch this space!

One other intriguing thing is that many of the women I spoke to at the summit had entered STEM because of an important role model or encouragement from family. A few who were at the summit but weren't actually working in STEM mentioned how they had been discouraged from doing STEM and how they regretted it. The overwhelming feeling from these discussions was that women really do rely on role models challenging the stereotyping that often discourages girls from studying STEM subjects.

And a final couple of thoughts. This is the first time in my scientific career that I have ever had to queue for a ladies toilet at a conference! I also kept writing 'men and women' rather 'women and men' while I was writing this blog post - it took a conscious effort to notice and change the habit. Just a couple of indications of my own stereotyping and bias in action.


Toni Collis, EPCC

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