STEM with benefits, for women too

I thought I had prepared myself well for the arrival of my first son. I read the books, attended the training, took long walks, and ate well (OK, that’s my memory erasing the Maltese ‘qassatat’ and ‘ftajjar’). Childbirth didn’t play out the way I had imagined, but I guess that’s just the physical reality of things. But, later, when I found myself at home, responsible for a helpless infant, with more questions on my hands than I could hold, I blamed biology. Yes, I was extremely angry that all those years of studying biology had not served me well, and here I was, not knowing how to translate any of the science into practical tips for managing the surprises of breastfeeding, growth spurts, and lack of sleep.

On shifting the gender balance

Speaking as a member of the panel on shifting the gender balance in STEM at the business breakfast organised by the Human Rights Directorate of the Malta Ministry for Equality, Research, and Innovation on this year’s International Women’s Day, I was reminded of this significant moment when I doubted the value of my investment in science. True to my nature, I contributed by highlighting some of the sex differences that explain at least part of the imbalance, touching upon the fact that with STEM being such a broad category, we need to make a distinction between, for example, the natural sciences and ICT when interpreting the statistics.

I also said we need to look for motive, and here we probably agree that women, with their different personality, mindset, and attitude, bring different value to these fields and economic sectors. Later, freed from the moderator’s stopwatch, I realised that, even while we acknowledge any natural and social barriers, we need to admit that having women embrace STEM is a modern-day necessity because this is how we can champion innovative ideas, co-design the tools and solutions, and follow the development of products that are more compatible with the modern world because they are more people-friendly.

The question remains how to convince more women to take the STEM train. In my opinion, we could start by changing our goals, from gender equality to progress and prosperity, by nurturing ambition and collaboration, but letting go of the expectation that we must have the 50:50 ratio as an outcome.

A question of choice

As psychologist and social scientist Susan Pinker asks, we also need to be honest about ‘Why Aren’t There More Women in Science and Technology’. In this Wall Street Journal column, Pinker explains how, in a study on science literacy with nearly a half million adolescents from 67 countries, it emerged that, although girls were at least as strong in science and maths as boys in 60% of the PISA countries, they had even higher scores in reading, which meant that boys would go on to choose careers based on their core strengths, while girls would have more options. The most fascinating result was that a good 40% of girls would follow a STEM degree but only in countries with the poorest track record in gender equality and legal protection for women – such as Algeria, Tunisia, Albania and the United Arab Emirates. What this could be saying is that, in an ideal scenario, girls choose a career in something they are good at, but when the options are limited, and STEM offer better prospects, they will go there.

Incidentally this article reminded me of the fuss that erupted around the Malta Employers’ Association proposal to “channel students into career-oriented disciplines such as STEM subjects and to wean them away from ‘soft options’ in their studies” with the aim of moving towards a better economy.

Two things. Firstly, I’m not so sure that young girls are aware of, or are willing to consider the economic landscape and how it will shape their opportunities in the future, and secondly, I doubt that the arts and humanities turn out to be softer options as a career choice, given that ultimately competition in these sectors will be much harsher.

That which opens your mind

If we must rely on benefit, then it has to serve the interests of the individual. Why should anyone, girl included, choose science as a foundation in life? The great American biologist, naturalist, and writer Edward O. Wilson who died last December aged 92, gives us his answer. In his book ‘Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge’, Wilson says that “without the instruments and accumulated knowledge of the natural sciences – physics, chemistry, and biology – humans are trapped in a cognitive prison.” They might invent speculations about the origin of their environment, but they are “always wrong, because the world is too remote from ordinary experience to be merely imagined.”

This is where I am inspired. As I am hit with pleasant memories of how my own preferences to study and to work in science were always borne out of a simple curiosity to observe things, it all starts to make sense. It’s what evolutionary biologists Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein speak about in their book ‘A Hunter-Gatherer Guide to the 21st Century: Evolution and the Challenges of Modern Life’ when they urge us to spend time in nature, to “generate strength and calibrate our understanding of our own significance.”

Perhaps the key to understanding how to shift the gender balance in STEM is to let girls know, as early as possible, that the sciences will enrich their minds and enable their actions. I can also tell anyone who feels a sense of loss at leaving language and literature behind that in reality, even if you put STEM in the middle of your road, you will inevitably also grow in the arts along the way. That’s the beauty of a life built on balance. And that’s the story we need to be telling young girls, because even if there are exceptions, science will sustain their long-term investment in success. It’s a labour of love, with reward added.

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