How does gender diversity improve science?
Men continue to outnumber women in science, technology, engineering and maths professions; what has been the effect of this predominantly male lens?
G'day. I'm Glyn Davis, and welcome to the Policy Shop, a place where we think about policy choices.
Studies show women earn just a third of undergraduate degrees in science. It's worse at the master's degree level, and even worse for doctorates.
A recent government accountability study revealed that 80 per cent of the drugs withdrawn from the market are due to side effects on women, so let's think about that for a minute. Why are we discovering side effects on women only after a drug has been released to the market?
If we only have half of our population thinking that they're the ones who are going to come up with the solutions, we may not get there, or it's going to take a lot longer, so we need all hands on deck, and that's why diversity is so important.
Science, technology, engineering, maths, these are accepted as the furnace of innovation that drives the growth of economies. Yet female participation in STEM careers globally and in Australia remains low. Indeed, in Australia at school level, boys outnumber girls studying maths two to one, a ratio that's remained unchanged since 1991. Only 16 per cent of Australians in STEM professions are women, and where women do participate, there is a wide gender pay gap.
What's been the effect on science of a predominantly male lens? Why does gender matter when it comes to STEM research, and what can we do to improve female participation in disciplines deemed vital to the growth of our economies and the wellbeing of our society.
To help explore these questions, we're joined on the line by one of the world's leading experts in this area.
Londa Schiebinger is the John L. Hinds Professor of History of Science at Stanford University, and she's also the Director of the EU and US Gendered Innovations in Science, Health and Medicine, Engineering and Environment Project. Londa, welcome to the podcast.
Now, your ground-breaking book, Has Feminism Changed Science?, provided a frank assessment of the role of gender in shaping scientific knowledge. Can you share some of your key findings about the consequences of a predominantly male lens on scientific research?
The absence of women from science is not just the absence of participants. It's the absence of an entire aspect of culture - let's just call it the feminine gender aspects. So along with women, in the 18th century, women were systematically pushed out of science as science was becoming a new profession, and at the same time, science distanced itself from qualities which were then defined as feminine and devalued.
So this is the big background, the scientific revolution, the big bang in the history of science, was really about privileging certain ways of knowing over other ways of knowing. So I'm not suggesting that women have biologically different ways of knowing, but because there are gender divides in society, men and women have very different social experiences, and I think that women tend to ask different questions and take different approaches to science.
So you mentioned participation, but there's also method, and there's the questions asked. Can you tell us what your research tells us perhaps gender and sex differences on those two criteria?
When we open up questions about sex and gender analysis, we come to new questions. The big example that I think your listeners will be familiar with is heart attack. For decades, we considered heart attack to be fundamentally a male disease, and the classic signs and symptoms were defined through the male experience, so men tended to have heart attacks in their 50s, and women tend to have heart attacks more in their 60s, which I guess doesn't seem as tragic to people somehow. So we have lacked a fundamental understanding of heart attack and the symptoms.
What's really interesting is now, after 20 years, we know the symptoms of women's heart attacks. Many women of course have the classic pain, chest pain, or the pain in the left arm. But women also have more slightly less clear symptoms. Neither the emergency person on your emergency telephone call, nor the emergency people at the hospital, or the woman herself, really understands she's having a heart attack. But now, after 20 years of public education, I think we're much better at understanding that.
I think it's funny that women's symptoms of heart attack are called atypical - still called atypical, meaning that even though we now understand that heart disease is the number-one killer of both men and women, we're still defining it somehow through the male experience.
So to unlock the potential of the methodology you created or you pioneered in this book, comes gendered innovations, which has turned into a worldwide research project aimed at bringing together experts from across the United States and Europe and Canada and Asia. The project's received funding from the European Commission and from the US National Science Foundation, as well as from Stanford University, and its aim, and I'm quoting here, is 'to harness the creative power of sex and gender analysis for innovation and discovery'.
How does the project hope to achieve this?
If we ask about sex and gender analysis, do we discover something new? Do we enhance innovation? That's really the key question now - how can we harness the power of sex and gender analysis to see new things? That's what we're very excited about. What we did in the project was two things - we developed methods of sex and gender analysis, checklists for scientists and engineers, so that they can see how to incorporate it into their research.
But secondly, and I think more importantly, we started with 26 case studies. We now have 29 case studies. These are examples - you can go to our website and see 29 examples of how sex and gender analysis actually led to something new. So we're summarising and handing people these examples.
People learn much more quickly through examples than through some long-term kind of methodology, lecture.
As I understand it, the EU Horizon 2020 strategy has actually identified 137 different areas in science and technology where gendered analysis could benefit research. Can you give us a sense of what the EU's looking for and some of the examples that have persuaded them that this is absolutely worth pursuing?
The European Commission is the global leader in the policy in this area. They like to call this the gender dimension of research. I call it sex and gender analysis, but they like the term gender dimension, and they very importantly, for Horizon 2020, asked all researchers who are seeking public funds to integrate sex and gender analysis into their research, or if it's not relevant, you can say it's not relevant to theoretical physics or to basic mathematics.
But for many, many fields, and they then identified 137 fields of science where this is important - some of these are oceanography, computer hardware, obviously the biosciences, nanotechnology, many, many different areas. Then they flag these areas where they expect that - or they have evidence that there can be sex and/or gender issues to analyse, and then they expect that when people apply for public funds, that they will create science or technology that serves everyone.
The problem is that if one is using this male lens that you were talking about before, if you're not considering how sex or gender works in your research, you might not be serving everyone equally.
If we take a quick example, just to say what some of this is, for instance, a company, Apple, released a project called HealthKit, which appears on your iPhone. So we have to remember that Apple has many, many men who are the engineers there. They have very few women employees, and the CEO comes out and says, oh yes, our HealthKit, it tracks everything. It helps you stay healthy. It tracks how many steps you take during the day. It tracks your blood pressure. It tracks your heartbeat, et cetera, et cetera.
Then, of course, when women tried it out, they had to say, well, it's not serving us. It tracks everything, but what didn't it track? It didn't track the menstrual cycle, and there are many, many reasons why women and their partners might want to know what their menstrual cycle is, when is it going to happen, maybe they're trying to become pregnant or maybe they're trying to not become pregnant. But that's the sort of thing you need to know.
Other examples that we've just been working in, we just did two new case studies on gender and robotics, and it's very important, as assistive technologies come into play, that they consider sex differences and they also consider gender differences. So for an assistive robot for the elderly, for example, you want to know are there differences in size, height, strength, between men and women, between the types of people that you're trying to serve. You need to take that into account, so that if it's an exoskeleton or something like that, and if it's to help people walk, well, have you taken into account the shape of pelvises, which may differ?
Then assistive technologies also need to consider gender preferences and gender expectations.
There's actually quite a debate about whether a robot should meet human expectations. If it's a nursing robot, should it be gendered as a woman, with a female voice and mannerisms, that sort of thing, in order to meet human expectations, such that the human involved is more likely to collaborate with the robot, to do what it - the robot is reminding people to take their medicines. Well, is the human going to be more compliant if that robot is a female or if that robot is gendered male.
So your starting point, of course, for your threefold division of why this matters was around participation. Once discrimination was quite overt, certainly in Australia in the late 1940s, the brilliant radio astronomer, Ruby Payne-Scott had to conceal her marriage to keep her job at the CSIRO. Then of course later on she had to resign for the crime of pregnancy.
The world may have moved on somewhat, and I'm keen to hear your thoughts on this, because we still see this surface from time to time. Just last year, Google fired a male software engineer who wrote an internal memo arguing that the low number of women in technical positions was a result of biological differences rather than discrimination. In June this year, Stuart Reges, who is a lecturer at the University of Washington, wrote an article entitled Why Women Don't Code. He suggested that women are less likely to major in computer science and less likely to pursue a career as a software engineer, and these are decisions he argued that aren't discrimination, but they account for the gender gap we see in most Silicon Valley companies.
Clearly, if we can't front the participation question, it will also be difficult to go to questions of methodology and questions being asked. How do you respond to these apparently perennial debates?
Well, I would like to know what the evidence is that we won't go to diversity in methods and diversity in questions asked. I would also suggest that diversity in the kinds of questions asked can have the potential to suck women into something.
Why don't women like to do engineering? Well, it's very gendered as the male environment. It can be a very masculine environment. There are so many factors at play that - let me say, we can't just focus on participation, because we have been focussing on that, and we have to take into account the other aspects of diversity.
So in your prologue there, you brought up so many issues. A key issue for women's participation is dual careers.
We did a national study of 30,000 faculty in the United States at 13 top research universities, and we found many, many things, but one of the things we found is that women will not take a job at an institution if their partner, whether that's a man or a woman, is not comfortably settled and settled nearby.
We learned, much to my surprise, that in the United States, academics won't commute for their jobs. Only 2 per cent of our sample were commuting. They move around to jobs and look for jobs in the same place until they're both happy, but there's a big difference between men and women in this regard.
The men tend to take a job - maybe they still have the notion that they're the breadwinner of the family or something, and they're happy if their partner gets placed at all. But women want to make sure their partner is happy, so at any one of these aspects that you mentioned, can be deal-breakers for the women.
We also know that culture plays a big role. In the West, we have these Barbie dolls, and what were Barbie's first words when she spoke in 1994? She said, math class is tough. Now, why do we associate this blonde bombshell with difficulties in math? This is a very, very deep issue in Western culture. I was very interested in a study that was done a few years ago, which compared the participation of former East German women with former West German women in the International Math Olympiad.
That competition is one of the highest forms of math competition for younger people. So they're assuming that these two Germanys are genetically and biologically similar, but they had very different cultures, East Germany being in the Soviet realm and West Germany being more in the Western realm, and they found that while a number of East German girls and women had participated in the International Math Olympiad, zero West German girls or women had, before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
So the culture is so strong, and it shapes the aspirations of young men and women, and it tugs at us and tells us what we should and should not do. So gender, of course, consists of gender identity, which is how we define ourselves, but importantly of gender norms, which are the social pressures around us, and it also consists of gender relations, which are the relationships between people of different gender identities. I really think we need to focus on these gender norms and make STEM fields, science, engineering, math fields where women also feel comfortable in many, many ways.
So as I like to say, we have to fix the institutions. We have to take these historic institutions, which are universities, which have been moulded by men's lives, because that's who university professors were for many, many years, and we have to also, in order to fix the numbers of women, we have to also fix the knowledge. That's really where my work comes in, not only to make knowledge excellent - if we leave out sex and gender analysis, knowledge is not complete. We haven't used the last set of variables that we need to use.
So we really need to focus on fixing the knowledge. This will not only create excellent knowledge in science and technology, but I firmly believe, and have some evidence that it will suck the women in.
So universities around the world are responding to low female academic participation in STEM through the Athena SWAN project and other related initiatives, but your argument would suggest this is not a sufficient process to change the orientation of institutions and their ability to embrace diversity across all three criteria?
So I think Athena SWAN is doing a really wonderful job in what I call fixing the institutions, so making sure that departments are welcoming places for diverse participants and that sort of thing. I would love to move them to the fix the knowledge level. If they could make that part of their silver and gold system, it would be really useful.
You've mentioned the European Union, but where else should we look to for examples where this approach has been embraced.
Well, I have to say that the Republic of Korea, so South Korea has developed a Gendered Innovation Research Centre. They're doing research in medicine and technology. Japan, I was just recently in Japan, and there the Japanese Science and Technology Council, so their research funding organisations are looking at - it will be a slow process for Japan - but they're looking at how can they foster diversity in knowledge, integrating sex and gender analysis into research. So very soon the Germans are going to announce that they have adopted policies similar to the European Commission for their large research organisation.
So we're seeing it's not only the funding agencies, but very importantly, the journals are also asking, when they're selecting manuscripts for publication, they want those to be excellent manuscripts, and they are looking now for sex and gender analysis, if relevant. There's really not a medical journal now that doesn't ask for this, because evidence in medicine is so very clear, and I'm now going to start working with computer science journals and some engineering journals to see what kind of criteria they would like to bring, as well.
So taken together, these are the three fixes that you advocate - fix the number of women, fix the institutions and fix the knowledge, and you're seeing the three together is what changes the picture.
Yes. You need to do all three of these. You won't accomplish number one if you don't accomplish number three. These are all interdependent. There's many aspects that need to be fixed, not just around diversity but for greater collaboration between disciplines. Disciplines really are a creation of the 19th century. They're not - they don't emerge from nature in any way, so it's sometimes very hard to get past those disciplinary divides.
So we need to fix the knowledge, fix the institutions, and also that I believe will increase diversity in participation.
I'd like to return to our starting question around the role of girls in STEM and see if we can do better than Barbie that math class is really hard - not an ideal first statement for Barbie. This is National Science Week in Australia, which is our annual celebration of the sciences, and it provides I think an important opportunity for inspiring young female engagement with science, but here, as elsewhere, many girls doubt their potential to suceed in sciences.
Our data suggests that in year four, one in three girls has confidence in their mathematical ability, compared to two in five boys. By year 12, there are two boys for every girl in advanced mathematics and three boys for every girl in physics. How at this fundamental starting of people's careers can we inspire future generations of women to engage in STEM and to participate fully in these remarkable fields?
I think that we need to surround girls with things that work for them. If they want to be a jet pilot, for instance, the cockpits used to not fit women. You couldn't adjust them to fit women. It has to be that everything we see - and our automobiles. We don't have a seatbelt for pregnant women. How do we have such an oversight, something that kills so many foetuses? I'm sure that in science class, the girls aren't seeing that if you're doing a study with mice, you should have both female and male mice. The predominance, of course, is to have male mice, and then we have learned through some fascinating research that the mice respond differently to men researchers and to women researchers, because they smell the pheromones. They sense who is in the room.
So I think if we can balance the science, if girls see that they're included and from the very chairs they sit on to the very research projects that they're offered in school, that they see that females are valued and included, I think that this would go a long way to bringing more girls into science. So again, we must fix the knowledge.
When my children were in school, they'd bring home the school library books, and it would be about Mr Turtle going out to work and Mrs Turtle ironing a shirt, and I wanted to go to the library and cull all of those books with these horrible gender stereotypes. I think that we need to do that. We need to cull our society for all these horrible gender stereotypes, Hollywood movies, television shows. They're getting better, but we have to work at it, at every moment, and girls need to see men teachers and women teachers. They need to see the scientists as well. There's just a lot to be done.
Indeed. Londa, you've made a huge intellectual contribution to a very fundamental policy question. Does so many years of working in the field to address these issues leave you as an optimist or a pessimist?
Well, I was born an optimist, I have to say, but it is so exciting, because when I was a PhD student at Harvard University, there was one woman professor, tenured woman professor in the department. This was in the 1980s, and I never had the opportunity to work with a woman professor.
Now, history, we graduate 42 per cent women PhDs, and I'm not sure what our department is here at Stanford, but there are lots of great senior women. So there have been so many changes over the 30 years I've been in the business. I never thought - when I was doing my dissertation, called The Mind Has No Sex, Women in the Origins of Modern Science, I never imagined for a moment that the European Commission would have any kind of policy on these issues. These issues were new.
The whole field of gender studies had not yet been invented. Women's history was just new, and I was told it would be professional suicide if I worked on these issues. So the world has changed so much in 30 years, I wish I could live for 30 more years and see what we're doing then.
Hopefully you will. Such an important topic. Thank you very much. My thanks to our guest, Londa Schiebinger, the John L. Hinds Professor of History of Science at Stanford University, and Londa, thank you for joining us on the Policy Shop.
Yes, it was a pleasure.
The Policy Shop is recorded at the Horwood Studio at the University of Melbourne and is produced by Eoin Hahessy with audio engineering by Gavin Nebauer, copyright University of Melbourne, 2018.
Science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) are accepted as a furnace of innovation that can drive the growth of economies. Yet female participation in STEM careers globally, and in Australia, is low.
In Australia at school level, boys outnumber girls studying maths 2 to 1 – a ratio that has remained unchanged since 1991. Only 16 per cent of Australians in STEM professions are women. And where women do participate, there is a wide gender pay gap.
Why does gender matter when it comes to STEM research? And what can we do to improve female participation in disciplines deemed vital to the growth of our economies and society?
We tackle these issues with one of the world’s leading experts; Professor Londa Schiebinger.
Episode recorded: 9 August 2018
The Policy Shop producer: Eoin Hahessy
Audio engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Research: Eugene Toh & Ruby Schwartz
Banner image: Pixababy
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