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Where are the women in STEM?

  • Published at 05:43 pm May 22nd, 2018
Syed Rashad Imam Tanmoy

I grew up idolizing my older cousin, Bhadun Apu. She has always been the genius in the family. The one person we all worshipping younger cousins looked up to as an example of a keen mind.

I would always take pride when she laughed at my science jokes (which, in retrospect, were quite lame) and would take her approval as validation of my own capacity. I was in awe of everything she accomplished, be it writing amazing essays, teaching herself to an A grade in A level mathematics, and double majoring in Physics and Electrical Engineering. 

I suppose that was part of the reason why I never understood the idea that women are handicapped in STEM fields. And whenever people did voice such sentiments (I remember a brilliant BUET-trained male engineer suggesting this), I came to vehemently disagree with them. 

Their argument ran something like this - the majority of well-known scientists are men! And, they go on to say, look at your university science classes, we boys far outnumber the girls!

The first of the arguments can be dispelled with ease. The vast majority of well-known “anybody” tends to be men. Because, for the most of history, men were the beneficiaries of the patriarchy they so ruthlessly crafted and maintained. 

We need to realize that it was only 135 years ago that Russian universities stubbornly refused entry to the brilliant Marie Curie (she was born in the Russian partition of Poland). This is the historical equivalent of yesterday. 

And God knows how many a beautiful minds have been lost over such obscene bigotry. To somehow expect womenfolk to catch up to the hundreds of years' worth of a head start men have had is naturally absurd.

Which brings us to the second part of the argument. True, there are usually more men than women taking up sciences at the universities. But this argument misrepresents the issue of gender disparity in the STEMs. 

Gijsbert Stoet, at Leeds Beckett University, and David Geary, at the University of Missouri, both co-authored a paper that shows women in more gender-equal nations have a lower tendency to pursue a career in the STEMs. It also suggests that skillsets have nothing to do with it, as the girls in all the surveyed countries did as well as boys in the sciences and math in their high school and would have made fine science students at university if they chose to. 

If choice rather than competency accounts for some of the disparity, then the problem at hand is more nuanced. Perhaps it is better to ask, do they feel welcome? Most likely not. Bear in mind, that residual patriarchy is still an issue. Jennifer Blue, Adrienne Traxler, and Ximena Cld, all female professors of physics at reputable institutes, collaborated on a Physics Today article showing how implicit bias is still rooted in the physics community. It is likely that a similar bias is prevalent in other areas of STEM.

To illustrate what I am precisely pointing at, entertain the following scenario – a majority of degree-holders in English are now women. If I chose to pursue a major in English rather than Physics, would I be discouraged on the basis of my gender as a man? Certainly not. 

Would I be told I am less likely to succeed? Of course not. Then why, in this scenario if majors and genders are swapped, would we get a different outcome?

Syed Raiyan Nuri Reza is a freelance contributor. He writes from Tehran