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STEMatisation of Women

How gender stereotypes can prevent women from having careers in knowledge-intensive industries


Having studied gender imbalances in disciplines such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics, HSE sociologists propose steps to support women in choosing STEM and staying in this field.

Gender Division of Labour

Men outnumber women by between three and four to one in spheres such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and the disproportion is similar in Russia, Europe and the U.S. Starting in secondary school, gender-specific attitudes towards STEM consolidate in high school, further increase in university, and ultimately affect the labour market. As a result, science, technology and engineering remain predominantly male, according to 'Women and STEM in the Digital Age: Employment Policies in Megacities' by Olga Savinskaya, Elizaveta Zakharova and Tamara Mkhitaryan.

The authors cite recent Rosstat data on university students. In physics and mathematics, men outnumber women almost two to one (66% versus 34%); the difference is nearly 3.8 times (79% versus 21%) in information security, five to one in metallurgy and mechanical engineering, and a whopping six to one in power engineering, electric technology, and aviation and aerospace technology.

Consequently, the gender ratio of university graduates is similar in physics, mathematics and IT, with just 20% of women. However, the proportion of women in biology and chemistry stands at 60%.

Even those women who earn a degree in STEM are far less likely to stay and pursue them, particularly mathematics, physics and engineering, as a lifetime career. According to the authors, only one in four women trained in STEM will become employed in their degree field.

Cognitive abilities are clearly not the reason for this crosscutting imbalance: girls and boys are equally capable of studying mathematics and other scientific disciplines. Instead, the gender gap lies in student self-assessment of their performance in these subjects and their perceived importance for the future.

Falling Confidence

A survey conducted in 2017 in school grades 5, 8 and 11 in Moscow and the town of Gubkin, Belgorod Region (438 students, 54% girls, each class represented in equal proportions), reveals that boys and girls' academic performance in mathematics is about the same. However, male and female students differ greatly in terms of confidence and self-assessment of their performance, as well as their perceived priorities.

Boys and girls tend to be polar opposites in terms of their vision of STEM as a career choice. The survey indicates that boys are far more likely to choose STEM, while girls are more attracted to creative and humanitarian professions, with only 35% of all girls in the sample choosing science and mathematics, as opposed to 65% of boys.

According to another study, by grade nine, girls tend to lose interest in mathematics and are likely to have a lower assessment of their own performance in mathematics than boys.

However, students' self-assessment may or may not correlate with their actual knowledge and skills.

In grade five, girls tend to score higher marks in mathematics than boys, and no gender difference in performance is observed in grades eight and eleven. However, only 10% of female students in senior grades assess their competence in mathematics as high, compared to four times as many boys (38%).

Over time, gender-specific trends in self-assessment of mathematical abilities go in different directions:  downward for girls, from 17% in grade five to 10% in grade 11, and upward for boys, from 20% in grade five to 38% in grade 11.

Underestimated Opportunity

An international survey conducted by PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) demonstrates gender differences in student confidence about their performance. According to ‘The ABC of Gender Equality in Education’ study, when asked to solve various problems to determine their mathematics self-efficacy, students showed significant gender differences: 67% of boys but only 44% of girls reported feeling confident about calculating the petrol consumption rate of a car, and 75% of girls, compared to 84% of boys, reported feeling confident about calculating how much cheaper a TV would be after a discount.

Confidence about one's performance is likely to affect future training and career choices. 'We found that in 73% of cases, girls who did not rate their academic performance as high were not going to choose a course in STEM', the researchers note.

The reasons for a lack of confidence or interest in science and technology can be many and varied, including whether or not the teacher is good at inspiring students to learn their subject.

According to some experts, female students could benefit from verbal encouragement during classes in physics and mathematics. Claudia Morrell and Carolyn Parker argue for using micromessages to engage more female students in STEM disciplines. Micromessages can include small comments, jokes and suggestions made by the teacher in the classroom to encourage and inspire girls, such as: 'Well done, keep up the good work, soon you'll know enough to design a space suit for interplanetary flight – your Mum will be impressed!' 'Keep experimenting, people learn though failure, it's the path to success.'

Teaching practices are just part of a broader problem with widespread gender-based stereotypes about science and technology which can limit girls’ career choices.

Ubiquitous Genderisation

Popular stereotypes can influence one's choice of career. While people do not always seek approval and can make autonomous decisions, very often ‘we experience society's strict supervision of our compliance with generally accepted norms’, according to the authors.

Gender norms are among the most powerful. Not surprisingly, some researchers have raised the issue of ubiquitous 'genderisation'. In his book The Gendered Society, American sociologist Michael Kimmel describes workplace, family and school as 'gendered institutions, sites where the dominant definitions are reinforced and reproduced, and where "deviants" are disciplined'.

The authors describe gender stereotypes, including popular beliefs about careers in STEM, as barriers which are hard for most people to cross.

 Many parents hold radical opinions, such as 'engineering is not for women'. Parents’ forums and chat rooms often describe mathematics as too sophisticated and boring and physics as too complicated and 'abstract'.

 Careers are often evaluated from the 'public good' perspective, but the implications are different for boys and girls. Providing a service that people need and being approved by society is far more important for girls, while disciplines such as mathematics or physics are not directly associated with public benefit, causing girls to prefer occupations which are 'closer to people's lives'.

 Driven by stereotypes, teachers can undervalue female students' achievements in science and technology and expect higher than average performance in humanitarian disciplines. The opposite is true of male students whose achievements in physics get over-praised and interest in humanities undervalued.

Students tend to absorb and internalise such attitudes.

Latent Genderisation at School

The authors studied how gender stereotypes are transmitted at school, in particular a phenomenon called 'the hidden curriculum'. Analysing this concept in her gender research, Elena Iarskaia-Smirnova describes it to include 'the way an institution is organised, and gender relations in the workplace', the content of subjects taught and the teaching style. All these factors contribute to gender inequality by giving preference to 'the male and the dominant' and underestimating 'the female and the atypical'.

The researchers examined school life, both in and out of class, for a hidden curriculum. 'We observed factors shaping children's behaviour in class, during breaks, extracurricular activities and clubs, subbotniks and excursions, doing homework and socialising after school'. The students were asked how much they agreed with 28 statements; based on their responses, the researchers identified three key factors contributing to the hidden curriculum.

1. Gender segregation in teaching certain subjects. Classes in Technology and PT are taught separately to girls and boys.

2. Gender-specific assignments during extracurricular activities. Gender-based 'division of labour' is typical of out-of-class activities such as cleaning the school grounds (subbotniks) or making holiday preparations: e.g. boys arrange the chairs while girls decorate the room.

3. Peer pressure. According to both boys and girls, those who do not comply with the gender norms are likely to face ridicule from the opposite gender. Some students reported 'restraining themselves from certain actions' to avoid being taunted by classmates.

Of the three factors, gender segregation in teaching certain subjects was found to be the strongest. According to the researchers, 'school directly contributes to shaping students’ gender-specific attitudes and behaviour patterns … School is more likely than not to send a message to female students that their life path must be different from that of males, and this can influence their career choices', the authors conclude.

Discrimination in Labour Market

The labour market creates its own gender barriers. According to Savinskaya and the co-authors, women have been slowly but surely losing their positions in Russia's knowledge-intensive technology sector. A joint study by researchers from Russia, the U.S. and Canada reveals that Russian women are less likely than Russian men to publish their papers in international scientific journals, particularly in areas such as mathematics, physics and engineering.

There is a gender gap in salaries, with women scientists earning less than men, as well as a glass ceiling preventing women's career advancement. Women are more likely than men to stay in low- and medium-level positions in the academic hierarchy and less likely to defend dissertations.

This may be partly due to women's greater involvement in homemaking and childcare, which can force women to lower their career ambitions and face a kind of 'motherhood penalty'. In addition to these overarching challenges, women in STEM encounter even more problems due to commonly held gender stereotypes.

Society's norms concerning gender roles in the family are complemented with stereotypes about women in knowledge-intensive industries; according to the authors, these include 'doubts about women's cognitive abilities and the perceived disadvantages of involved experimental or R&D work for women'.

In this context, it can be difficult for a woman not to become disappointed and for her to stay in STEM. Universities and other research institutions need to take steps to help keep women in. The authors studied relevant policies and practices of the world's top universities, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Stanford, Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, California Technology (Caltech), and others.

Power of Women's Clubs

'It turns out that leaders in technology education also lead in supporting women's advancement', says Savinskaya. Creating women's communities such as an Association of Women in Science and Engineering or Women in Physics Society is the most common way of supporting women scientists. Such clubs facilitate networking and help women move up the academic ladder. Being part of a larger support community gives them confidence in trying out new ways of doing things.

'Also popular are big conferences hosted by the university and small workshops with industry leaders', Savinskaya notes, where the participants discuss ways to overcome gender inequality. In addition to this, some universities host master classes, make scholarships and grants, and offer supplementary courses (e.g. leadership training) for women.

All these measures are relevant in the Russian context. Awareness campaigns to dispel gender myths could benefit women in high-tech industries, as well as helping with better access to research and venture funding.

The ‘For Women in Science’ award programme which has been running in Russia since 2007 with support from the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Commission of the Russian Federation for UNESCO has yet to involve more universities in communicating this opportunity to their female researchers. 'We would like to see more of such awards, including those sponsored by Russian foundations and large technology corporations', the researchers emphasise.

In addition to steps taken within academia, cooperation between research institutions and commercial companies should be encouraged. It would be useful to create public-private partnerships aimed at helping women in STEM achieve their true potential.

In addition to this, supporting mothers employed in STEM could make a positive difference for the industry.

Helping Researchers with Childcare

Certain measures are universal and could help all working women with family responsibilities; these include treating homemaking as employment and encouraging fathers to be more involved in childcare. Both employment services and employers could take steps to help women update their professional qualifications after a maternity leave.

The ‘Best Company for Working Mothers Award’ in Moscow aims to encourage employers to support employees with children. Some of the award strands include:

 corporate maternity benefits;

 flexible working hours and flexible work space;

 policies supporting women's career advancement (continued training, career development advice);

 family support policies: summer holidays for children and families, tours, sports events, etc.

 setting up women's councils and commissions to offer assistance in difficult situations.

Monitoring female employees' needs is essential for well-targeted support. 'Some employees may need help with paying for their children's education, some others could benefit from extra hours of daycare, while still others would be better off allowed to work from home, perhaps with some changes in their job description'.

In conclusion, the authors urge for policies 'to change the norms which limit career opportunities for half of humankind'.

Study authors:
Olga Savinskaya, Associate Professor, Department of Sociological Research Methods, HSE Faculty of Social Sciences
Elizaveta Zakharova , Master's Student, HSE Faculty of Social Sciences

Tamara Mkhitaryan, Bachelor's Student, HSE Faculty of Social Sciences. 
Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, June 14