Why does it matter if young women are in short supply in tech, engineering and physical sciences? What about the dearth in economics? Does it matter that men opt out of languages and psychology? Prof Dame Athene Donald believes the answer to all these questions is “yes”.
In November, the Bennett Institute’s Diane Coyle, Innovate Cambridge’s Executive Director Tabitha Goldstaub and I talked about these issues in the amazing surroundings of Trinity College’s Wren Library to an audience, predictably if sadly, largely of women. Titled “Why we need more women in science and beyond“, building on my recent book focussing on the STEM subjects, there is no doubt we all agreed about the problems caused by the lack of diversity in many sectors.
Diane wrote for the Financial Times: “It is just as bad to have mainly male economic research and policy advice as it is to test medicines mainly on men. The results will fail at least half the population.” so her position on this issue is clear. Tabitha likewise made her own anxieties about “the eight billionaires versus the eight billion being affected by their decisions” explicit in our discussions, given that the eight billionaires are all male ‘tech bro’s’. Decisions are being taken by a non-diverse group of people across many different spheres, permitting numerous vital issues to be ignored, or swept under the carpet if a woman has the temerity to point out the problems.
All three of us are very clear about the problems in our own spheres. Problems that a ‘lean in’ mindset is not going to resolve. To me, that phrase smacks of victim blaming. If the problems are systemic, we have to look for systemic solutions, not pile the pressure on individuals who are struggling against the tide, expecting them to sort out the issues. What is much harder to identify are solutions. How can the dial be moved, when these problems have been known about for decades (certainly in the STEM arena; less so in computing where initially women were incredibly well represented, until the job descriptions switched from being ‘merely clerical’ to technical, even if the actual work remained unchanged and the women had been coping fine with it)?
Once again, we were all very clear that the problems start early in a child’s upbringing. The messages children receive in school and from the world around them are too often based on stereotypes, that there are boys’ subjects (and careers) and there are girls’ ones, and the two are perceived as distinct. According to Diane, children learn early on that economics is about money and suits, and girls don’t see that as for them. Tabitha queried whether children’s books give the right messages to impressionable youngsters. The numbers of women starting economics degrees are actually falling, despite the need for their contributions to making our world sustainable, liveable and safe. Problems in numbers at university and beyond cannot be fixed without sorting out the early years’ issues, although more can be done to make professional life easier for women. But that, of course, is a problem almost universally true.
I started off this post by asking if it mattered that women weren’t pursuing the three areas the three of us represent. There is the moral issue of how we, as a society, are damaging young women’s chances of satisfactory jobs that allow them to follow their dream. Beyond that aspect, which I think we can all take as read as shocking, I think it matters for society because of all the questions that aren’t asked, the innovations that the predominantly male workforce don’t think to push because the impact is primarily on women, the algorithms that are trained on incomplete data and therefore make mistakes and encode bias. As a society we need to do better.
The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.