On March 29th, US astronauts Christina Koch and Anne McClain are scheduled to conduct the first ever all-female spacewalk, in a mission to replace batteries on the outside of the ISS. On the ground, the support crew will also be led by two women: Mary Lawrence as lead flight director and and Kristen Facciol as lead spacewalk flight controller. Koch and McClain were part of the 2013 astronaut class, half of which were women.
It’s another exciting, breakthrough moment for women in science – and it got me thinking about the representation of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields.
It’s an issue that crops up in the mainstream news every so often, so even if you exist only on the periphery of the feminist movement, you’re likely to have heard about it. But what do the numbers actually say?
When you look at NASA, there hasn’t been a single female Commander on any of the 58 ISS missions. Only 12% of all ISS crew members have been women. Space travel, until now, has very much been the domain of men. And when there have been women, they have predominantly been white, which makes it so heartening to see that almost half the current class of astronauts are a somewhat more diverse group of women.
It must be said at this point that female representation in STEM fields is an issue that mainly affects those that have social, financial and educational privileges. The barriers faced by those that do not, as well as women of colour, non-binary, and/or disabled women are significantly higher. When we speak about wanting more diverse female representation in these fields, we mean these women too.
In the UK, there are over 900,000 women in STEM occupations. While there has been growth, these women still only make up a total of 22% of the STEM workforce. 12% of engineering professionals are women, 43.2% of science professionals are women, 27% of science and engineering technicians are women, and only 13% of STEM managers are women. There are also only 16% women in IT professional occupations, down 1% from the previous year.
Needless to say, these numbers aren’t great – especially considering the fact that the disparity in school performance in Science and Mathematics subjects is nowhere near as high. So what’s holding these capable women back from pursuing careers in these fields?
Stereotypes and unconscious bias play a significant part. Internalised prejudices all too often shape the way we see and treat each other, and ourselves.
It may not seem particularly dramatic that when I say “doctor” or “engineer” you’re more likely to picture a man and when I say “nurse” you’re more likely to picture a woman, but this unconscious bias has real consequences. In a study where recruiters in STEM fields were given two resumes, identical in every way but gender, they consistently rated the man as being more qualified for the job. The same thing happened when it came to judging an applicant’s mathematical abilities.
It is also one thing for a girl to be told “you can be anything you want to be” (depending on where she lives, she might not even have this privilege), and quite another for her to be able to look around and see that idea being lived. It’s a little like telling someone “you can definitely make that jump” and then only having one example of someone that made it safely to the other side. Of course, some still jump – but current lack of representation shows just how few. All too often, women’s beliefs about what they are capable of and the future choices they make, become limited.
And what of the women who do make it? Why do so few progress into leadership positions?
Arguing that it’s because of a lack of comparable skills is a gross oversimplification. It is a fact that we live in a world filled with bias where opportunities for men and women are not equal.
A lot of the women who choose to leave STEM fields do so not because of overt sexism, but because of inhospitable environments where access to training and development as well as support from superiors and co-workers is limited based on gender. In the study above, for instance, men were more likely to be offered mentoring than their equally skilled female counterparts.
Another barrier is maternity leave, or, in the case of America, lack thereof. Women there have a legal right to 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave and that’s it. In the UK, you are legally entitled to paid maternity leave and paid shared leave, but only 2% of parents opt for the latter option.
When women carry the sole responsibility of childcare, there is no way they can dedicate all their energy and time to a career. Asking them to compete with men who are free to do so is asking them to compete on an uneven playing field. Until childcare is split equally, one cannot argue that men and women have equal opportunities for career advancement.
Diversity in STEM fields, in all areas and at all levels, is essential. It means greater creativity, productivity, innovation and inclusivity.
When you have representatives from half the population researching and designing for everybody, it’s inevitable that there will be oversights. The experiences and needs of the other half often end up, through no malicious intent, being ignored. And this is a real problem.
EU regulation crash-test dummies are based on the “average male.” In tests where female crash-test dummies are required, scaled-down male dummies are used, which do not account for the fact that, for instance, women have less muscle on their necks and upper torso which makes us more vulnerable to whiplash. Unsurprisingly, this makes a woman in a car accident 47% more likely to be injured and 17% more likely to die.
Women are also more at risk of dying from stab wounds because police body armour is also designed around the “average male.” When differences in things like chest and hip measurements aren’t acknowledged, women end up at a higher risk because not just body armour but safety harnesses won’t fit right.
In software development, too, the gender data gap becomes a problem. Google’s speech recognition software, for instance, is 70% more likely to recognise male speech. When launching their “all-inclusive” health app in 2014, Apple forgot one simple, key feature: a period tracking function. This oversight has since been remedied, but one can’t help but wonder if this couldn’t have been prevented by a more diverse Research & Design team.
In medicine, most knowledge of diseases and the effects of treatments is based on research done on men. This means that women are not only more likely to have experience negative side-effects when it comes to treatments, but are also less likely to have their symptoms recognised: heart attacks in women, for instance, manifest as nausea, fatigue, and neck pain and not the “textbook” male chest and arm pain. And that’s just one of many examples.
We need to start researching, designing and building for all of humanity. The easiest way to do that is equal representation in all STEM fields, at all levels.
*As of March 26th, NASA’s all-female spacewalk has been cancelled because there were no spacesuits to fit one of the female astronauts, Anne McClain. She will now give up her spot to a male colleague.
Really? If we have the technology/engineering/science to send people to space in the first place, surely… surely… we can build a suit for a woman that fits her properly? I’m used to going into shops and having to search through ill fitting clothes on sale racks, but we’re not talking a £20 top here. We’re talking billions of dollars worth of science and training.
Of course, safety must absolutely come first, but you’d have thought that someone might have thought about this a little more than three days before the highly anticipated walk was going to happen.
Oh well, there’s always next time… And hopefully, next time, the space suit will fit. Maybe it’ll even have pockets.