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Women in STEM

Updated: Feb 9, 2022

The International Day of Women and Girls in Science was set up by UNESCO and UN-Women on the 22nd December 2015. The Day is intended to promote support for young girls in seeking education and their full ability to make their ideas heard. The Day is intended to remind society that women and girls help to increase the diversity of ideas among researchers and, therefore, the contribution of women and girls in science and technology communities is essential and should be encouraged.

Left to right: Rachael, Tracey, Alexandra, Stefania (back), Luana, Natasha (in absentia, Rosanne) are members of the Department of Systems and Control Engineering and the Centre for Biomedical Cybernetics.

Why is there a need for an International Day of Women and Girls in Science?

Although women and girls make up almost half the world's population, only 28.8% of the world's researchers are female, and only 35% of all students enrolled in STEM-related fields of study are women. This misbalance has an impact on the societal relevance of scientific developments. If issues related to climate change, sustainability, services and product development and others lack the representation of a group of people, women and girls, in this case, then it is likely that these developments do not take into account the specific needs of these people. When a more diverse group of people provides ideas, the solutions to the problems tend to be more societally relevant and all of us, women and men, can benefit from this diversity.

The International Day of Women and Girls in Science highlights the success stories of women in STEM and reminds everyone that gender should not be a barrier to a career in STEM. It is also a reminder to other women and girls that they are not the only women in the room.

Why is there gender misbalance in STEM?

Ada Lovelace is considered to be the founder of scientific computing and the first computer programmer. Katherine Johnson is a space scientist and mathematician who calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space, shaping America's aerospace program. Grace Murray Hopper developed computer languages written in English rather than mathematical notation. Edith Clarke patented a graphical calculator intended to simplify the calculations necessary to solve electronic power line transmission problems. The history of science has plenty of examples of women pioneers shaping STEM when it was much harder for girls to get an education in STEM. Then one naturally questions why there is still a gender misbalance among researchers and in higher education in STEM areas.

The answer is not straightforward, and gender differences in STEM do not begin at the labour market but at a younger, school age. Girls tend to perform better in science than maths, so there is a natural gravitation towards careers related to chemistry and biology than towards maths-oriented careers like engineering and ICT. This could be one of the reasons why there are more women in specific fields in science than in others.

While there may be a natural force pulling girls towards certain fields in science, this natural pull is aided by particular notions that girls should be directed towards specific careers and boys to others.

Societal norms, particularly those centred around family care, may come into effect at a later stage, and this may also explain the increased gender misbalance in leadership positions in STEM.

What is the solution?

As with all problems, there is no easy-fix solution. An attempt to accelerate representation by forcing quotas would eventually backfire through the additional pressure placed on girls and women to perform. Instead, a more patient approach is required – this may be by encouraging girls to regain interest in STEM subjects through classroom inspiration and encouragement, through textbooks, games, cartoons that are free from gender stereotypes and through more practical experiences. Rather than unconsciously promoting biases, we need to consciously encourage girls to pursue the career of their choice with joy, with a thirst for knowledge, with confidence and without fear of prejudice.

And this is why the International Day for Women and Girls in Science is necessary. By placing a spotlight on ordinary women and their work in STEM, it shows young girls that it is possible for them too to follow their dreams.

What is it like to be a woman with the Department of Systems and Control Engineering?

The Department of Systems and Control Engineering has a very good gender balance which came about partly due to chance and partly as a result of the open-mindedness of its first members. The Department can also boast of having the first female head-of-department in the Faculty's history. By creating an environment where members could voice their ideas and concerns freely, regardless of gender, it was easy to be a woman and an engineer. This led to growth in our careers as well as the department's research areas of biomedical signal processing, computer vision and transport engineering.

Moreover, the Department itself has benefited through the diversity of ideas brought forward through the different interests of all its members.

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