Women are eagerly rushing around to get to their next lecture or seminar or tutorial, carrying heavy notebooks and laptops. They flow into their respective classrooms, filling the rooms they enter. Their skirts and leggings, heels and headphones, make a cacaphony of sounds as they look for seats. They sit down, look at their lecturer, and wait for their educational experience to enthrall them.
For many STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) this seems like a hazy utopian dream, while in the social sciences this is an everyday reality.
This is because, unlike most STEM fields, the social sciences are rockstars at recruiting women. Some may even argue that we are too good at recruiting women. For example, in 2008 women earning doctoral degrees in psychology outnumbered men three to one.
In light of the recently passed Ada Lovelace month, which celebrated women in science, I wanted to take a novel approach to informing our understanding of why so few women choose the STEM path, while so many choose the social sciences.
Having grown up in a world of princesses and ponies, what exactly is it about the social sciences that make them so appealing to women?
In 2012 the European Commission compiled a meta-analysis of gender and science research, and one of their main conclusions was that women were underrepresented in STEM fields at least in part because “the traditional view of science as gender-neutral is flawed.”
To me, this makes a lot of sense. The commission goes on to explain that gender-neutral liberal feminism argues that women should have equal opportunities as men in STEM fields, but that this is currently not the case. Instead, women face additional hurdles at every step of the academic and professional STEM process, leading to unacceptable rates of attrition at the higher levels and an abysmal representation of women in scientific leadership roles.
On top of this, it seems we have inadvertently gendered the very terms we use to describe the different kinds of sciences. One reason that I think the social sciences are better at recruiting women is because in addition to highlighting the communications-related word ‘social’ our disciplines are synonymous with the term ‘soft science’. Soft, like a cuddly brown bear, or a comfy sweater. This is often placed in contrast to the ‘hard’ or ‘physical’ sciences. Hard as in definitely not social or communications-based, hard as in difficult, hard as in male.
I think that STEM has an image problem, and we need to actively combat it if we want to recruit girls. It’s an issue the social sciences have long addressed, teaching scientific literacy once we already have students firmly in our educational grip. If we change the language we use to talk about STEM, and use big sexy words like discovery and learning, or making knowledge, this may begin to bring forth a less gendered discourse about who should, and who should not, be doing which kind of science.
We need to get rid of arbitrary boundaries between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences
Visible normalcy of female success
Psychology, sociology, criminology and many other social -ologies you can think of bring to mind female lecturers, female professors, and female authors (and if they don’t, they really should). This means that females in academic roles are prevalent and easy to see.
This is something that STEM really needs to work on.
Campaigns like #ILookLikeAnEngineer showing photos of women in Engineering go in the right direction, but even more than this there need to be women in leadership roles within these industries that are highly visible. In support of this approach, research has repeatedly demonstrated that females are more inspired by outstanding female than male role models.
However, research has also shown that who we are using as our role models matters. A study conducted in 2011 showed that women only benefitted from non-stereotypical female STEM role models. If the women looked and acted like stereotypical STEMmer, wearing glasses a nerdy t-shirt and unfashionable pants, it did nothing to encourage female participation in STEM fields. On the flip-side, if the character was relatable in both appearance and hobbies, the female role model had a positive impact on whether women thought they would be successful in STEM.
To me, this ability to relate to the female role models is an often ignored key to success. It means that highlighting the brave women who overcame the challenges of being part of male-dominated fields can backfire. If I was a senior at school, I may not be hugely excited to sign up for bravery and struggle simply because of my gender, or I may not think of myself as exceptional enough to succeed in such a seemingly hostile industry.
In order for students to be able to picture themselves as professionals and academics in STEM they need to have relatable characters teaching and inspiring them. A bunch of default white males simply won’t do, and neither will a bunch of ‘brave’ and stigmatized women.
The journey, not just the destination
A study published in 2012 showed that teenage girls don’t see the connection between what they can learn in STEM fields and what they want to pursue as careers. In contrast, women are often drawn to the social sciences because they see these fields as a broad platform for personal and professional growth.
This is in stark contrast to many other STEM disciplines, which often place little-to-no emphasis on personal growth and broad development. Instead, they focus on a more utilitarian approach. You study mechanical engineering to work in mechanical engineering, not to find yourself.
I think that highlighting how the STEM journey may address such needs for personal growth, in actual class time and in promotional materials, would greatly contribute to its success in recruiting our girls.
A final thought…
Rather than pink-washing STEM fields and blue-washing the social sciences, we want to aim for an actual de-gendered approach to education that takes into account the diverse personal and professional goals of our students.
Let’s make STEM sexy by taking the gender out of it.
Dr. Julia Shaw works at London South Bank University in the department of Law and Social Sciences. She is a senior lecturer, researcher, and author of “The Memory Illusion: Why you may not be who you think you are” which is due to appear in 2016 with Penguin Random House.