The CataLyst: To freeze or not to freeze?

I’ve been meaning to write about this topic since long before the news broke that Apple and Facebook are offering to pay for their female employees to have their eggs frozen. After all, the issue of maintaining a good work / life balance is one of the larger ones when it comes to women in STEM. And the ever leaking pipeline, certainly gets extra leaky around the time when women hit 30+. It’s been heavily debated what these companies’ “true” intentions really are, and many articles have been written both in favor and against.

Before I go onto my little rant about this I would like to point out that I respect any woman’s choice concerning what to do with her own body, and there isn’t a right or wrong choice that fits every person.

I have recently accepted a job offer which will (hopefully) advance my career. This opportunity though, means moving countries, and asking my fiancé to leave his current job and find a new one in order to come with me. I’ve done this now because I feel I need to get as far ahead in my career as possible before starting a family, so that when I eventually do want to get back to work, I’ll be in the best possible situation to do so. If only life was that simple… For me, whether you’re positive or negative toward the idea of this new ‘job perk’, Apple and Facebook’s plan has highlighted just how different the world is for men and women, no matter how much we try and pretend it isn’t.

I’m not going to take this to any extremes here (and those examples always exist) and I don’t see the evil Big Brother plot to control women’s lives which some have hinted at. I don’t think that the perk on face value is a bad thing. Giving benefits that include paying for infertility treatments or adoption costs is a way to show that families are important and as far as I’m concerned, the more options the better. BUT… the underlying message that this perk sends out is that motherhood is viewed as a liability.

The age at which most men and women start progressing their careers happens to be the same age most women begin to have children, and in a majority of cases, childcare responsibilities mainly falls on the mother. The consequence of this is that many mid-career women who want to get ahead (such as myself) are faced with the choice to either advance in their careers, or start a family. Facebook and Apple claim to be addressing this issue with their new offer, saying that it’s enabling women to delay pregnancy, while focusing on their career goals at the same time as their male counterparts. But I see this as a problem rather than a solution.

It seems a bit of a slippery slope, offering to pay women to freeze their eggs for career purposes. Firstly, I think it tells women that the only way they can succeed in the career is by not having a family. Secondly, I think it might scare women into believing that if they do choose to start a family in their early 30’s, they will have very little opportunity to re-enter, let alone move up in their careers. I would even go as far as saying that this perk is in fact perpetuating gender inequality and only contributing to the problem.

The fact that starting a family is a liability to a woman’s career but not a man’s is what the problem here is. Women should have an equal shot at success regardless of how they spend their personal lives. Companies need to allow flexible working environments, better maternity and paternity leave (after all, a problem shared is a problem halved right?) and childcare benefits. If we allow working moms and dads(!) to integrate their family and work lives, and sharing the load, women will have a much greater chance to succeed.

The money that is supposed to be spent on freezing eggs ($20,000 per woman) could pay for full-time childcare for up to a year (even in London!). Or companies could use the money and to build nurseries in their offices and staff them with day-care workers. The message that a company sends a woman when egg freezing is a benefit, and the fact they don’t see that message, is an example of how far we still have to go.

The CataLyst: Are We Better Together?

About a month ago Scotland decided to remain part of the UK, and the “Better Together” campaign celebrated that a 300 year old union was not split up. I’m not going to get into politics here or my opinions about the Scottish referendum, as this is not the place for it. Instead, I want to talk about the concept of “Better Together”, the campaigns, how it’s left two groups of people very divided, and what we can learn from all this.

In any given group of people – be it family, work, school or randomly selected in public – you’re going to get different opinions about anything. So in a workplace that’s diverse and has representatives from all different backgrounds you could assume that people would think differently. This is natural as we have different life experiences that have shaped who we are. In the case of Scotland (a bit of an extreme to make my point, I’ll admit), we have two distinct groups with opposing opinions about their future. So, even though the “Better Together” campaign won, Scotland is now a nation where nearly half the population (45%) would rather have left. I question how good that is for unity.

Now let’s translate that into a work environment, a research group at university or a school class. How good is it to have such opposing opinions working together (by force or by choice)? I think it creates a very distinct “us and them” mind set. And this is where I think we have something to learn from Scotland’s predicament. The referendum campaign in Scotland was very harshly pushed from both sides. There was very little room for listening and trying to understand the other camp’s point of view. And where there was opportunity for compromise, many people were shouted down by those most extreme on either side. All of a sudden, there wasn’t a reasonable “middle” anymore, there was just black or white, us or them, yes or no.

I’m sure the people of Scotland have a whole range of diverse opinions, but when put in a situation where there are only two choices, people easily turn to an extreme. Likewise, in a workplace with a diverse group of people, we have to ask ourselves if everyone’s voice is being heard. Is it always the loud one who gets an opinion across, and do the people in charge take the time to ensure everyone gets involved? Maybe the quiet person who is a bit shy has a really great idea or solution, but no one ever asked them? Maybe the minority female staff have some ideas on how to increase equality, or make it easier to bring up diversity issues?

Any group of people can be diverse, and I think it’s great that we’re all working towards a world where the makeup of our society is reflected at every stage. BUT, a diverse society/family/workplace/school is nothing if we don’t use that diversity in an inclusive way, where everyone’s experiences are allowed to be heard. So are we better together? Of course we are, but the key is to not forget we come from different places, and can contribute different things. We need to continually work against our own prejudices (which we all have), if we are to move forward.

The CataLyst: Privilege and Diversity

Before I was an adult woman (and had to endure everything that comes with it) I was a girl growing up in a place where, as far as I could tell, the biggest injustice was not based on gender. I knew that I was treated differently by certain people, but it wasn’t because I was a girl. You see, in addition to being a woman, I’m also mixed-race (hello diversity!).

My mum moved to Sweden in the late 1970’s, and back then Sweden was (and comparatively still is today) a very homogeneous place. I was lucky enough to live in a city with a larger than average immigrant population, and in fact, many of my school friends were not Swedish by birth. However, even among the diverse groups of ethnicities in my school I was a minority, and the stereotypes that come with looking Chinese were constantly being pointed out to me.

What I’m trying to say is that whatever group we identify as belonging to, we carry with us some sort of privilege that other groups may not have. These privileges come in different forms and depend on where we are, where we come from and where we’re going. And it’s so important to be aware of them and recognise that we have them. The same way that men have a societal privilege over women, white women have a privilege over women of colour and other ethnic minorities. Having been brought up in the West gives you a certain privilege and what socioeconomic background you come from will also play a part.

I’m by no means trying to rank people on how bad off they are. I am, however, trying to highlight that in this fight for equality between the sexes, it’s easy to see things in just one dimension (men and women). It’s easy to forget that when encouraging girls in schools, their biggest struggles may not be based on their gender, but on their skin colour, religion, or sexual orientation. And asking of them to identify with one very specific type of woman might be harder than identifying with someone of a similar background.

This is why it’s so important, that even though we’re trying to promote women within STEM (and for me, women within wider society in general), we have to remember to diversify our group as much as possible. Being inclusive is the only way that we will truly succeed, and having a cross-section of women from all backgrounds represented, ensures that we can reach out to girls from all parts of society.

Easier said than done? Yes it is. For the same reason there are more men than women in STEM, there are more white women then ethnic minority women. And there are more women from higher socioeconomic backgrounds than from lower ones. But that’s all part of the reason that initiatives like this exist right? So although we should keep up the effort to get more women into STEM, we also need to look at what we can do to balance the makeup of our group. We should definitely keep encouraging girls and focusing on girls everywhere, but maybe put a little more focus on the girls who will have to fight the odds a bit more.

There is (maybe not) surprisingly little out there about intersectionality in STEM fields, but I’m hoping that talking about it will be a good start.

The CataLyst: Guest Post from the Stemettes

For this post I thought it would be fun to lift an organisation that does wonderful work here in the UK; the Stemettes! Rather than writing about it myself, here’s a guest post from Jacquelyn, Managing Stemette, who wants to share with us what the Stemettes are all about. Enjoy!

I’m an Arts student (History and Spanish, Durham, specifically), yet somehow – after two years too many working as a management consultant for two and a half years – I’ve ended up supporting one of the biggest “Girls into STEM” organisations in the UK. It’s funny that I should feel myself worthy to help girls on their path to a career in STEM when all I have is an in-depth knowledge of 20th Century Russian society and an ability to talk all sorts of things in Spanish to all sorts of people. But here I am co-running a fast growth start-up STEM social enterprise – and I reckon I am just as qualified as anyone else. Because at the Stemettes, passion is what matters.

The Stemettes was launched in February 2013 by Anne-Marie Imafidon (youngest girl in the UK to get an A Level aged 11 and Masters from Oxford at 20, both in Computer Science). She attended a keynote at the Grace Hopper Celebration in the States where she found out the number of women working in technology, wasn’t just declining – it was in freefall. After some research in the UK (specifically the Kings College London ASPIRES Report) she realised the situation was the same, if not worse, over here.

Having leafed her way through reams and reams of reports and documenting the problem, Anne-Marie felt it was about time that someone a) proposed solutions, and b) actually set to carrying out those activities which made up the solution. It doesn’t seem like rocket science…not to us or to you, but it may as well have been – there were so few organisations or women tackling this problem with action it seemed bizarre. There was practically no one.

The Stemettes aims to inspire girls to pursue a career in STEM through meeting amazing women already working in STEM via a series of panels, hackathons and exhibitions. And this year we are starting a mentoring and webinar programme also. We work with schools and corporations such as Deutsche Bank, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch and Accenture (see our website for more sponsors). We aim to break the social norm by showing girls they are just as welcome in STEM as they are in any other sector in industry. We get them coding, building, designing, creating, thinking and exploring. Through one “hot,” hands-on interaction with the Stemettes, we have seen the stats that prove girls are more positive about pursuing a career in STEM.

Results aside (we can show you rows and rows, cells and cells of feedback data as evidence), we know that part of what makes the Stemettes so successful is it is FUN. We do not try and convey a political message – the girls realise there is a problem but this isn’t why they should go into it; they realise they can work in STEM because they can and it is a good career, not simply in the name of equality.

There is no political message in a complete novice coding up a website or creating a mobile app in a day from scratch – not one that I can see anyway. Stemette Supporters, Big Stemettes and Little Stemettes alike enjoy themselves at our events, and our Twitter feed is awash with 140 characters of testimonies from all types: children and adults, men, women and girls.

We know the Stemettes can succeed, and our ultimate goal is to up the number of women working in STEM from 13% (2013) to 30%. That’s a realistic goal we reckon, especially as not only are more organisations coming on the scene that are fighting the same fight as us, but because the Stemettes are scaling up – and fast! In our first year we worked with 700 girls through 9 different events, mainly in London.

This year we hope to work with at least 1000 girls and run 18 events, half of which will take place outside London. Our success and the results and feedback we receive baffles us on a daily basis – Anne-Marie always says “no one is more surprised by this than I am,” and I believe her. She started the Stemettes project as a New Year’s resolution for 2013 as a side project to her full time job in technology at a global investment bank. But as long as that wave of opportunity and good fortune is still there, we’re going to continue riding it.

For more information, please visit our website Stemettes.org and sign up to our mailing list. You can also tweet us @Stemettes or email us at Stemettes@gmail.com.

Please do check our event page as we run new events every month.

Jacquelyn & Anne-Marie
Managing & Head Stemette

The CataLyst: The Stereotype Threat

At certain points in my life when I meet new people, the question of what I do for a living eventually surfaces. “So what do you work with?” they ask, to which I reply – trying to sound as neutral and normal as I possibly can – “I’m a chemical engineer.” Most of the time I’m met by silence, followed  by a facial expression that’s trying to not look surprised, and then a casual “Oh really, I wouldn’t have guessed that.”

I catch myself wanting to start a discussion at that point, asking people why they “wouldn’t have guessed that.” But then I remember why.

It’s the fact that things like this existed until very recently:

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And these kinds of stereotypes and generalisations are made every day, in a non-satirical way:

how_it_works

Sheryl Sandberg, the founder of Lean In, explains Stereotype Threat with these words:

Stereotype threat means that the more we’re aware of a stereotype, the more we act in accordance with it,” Sandberg explains. “So, stereotypically we believe girls are not good at math. Therefore, girls don’t do well at math, and it self-perpetuates. If you ask a girl right before she takes a math test to check off ‘M’ or ‘F’ for male or female, she does worse on that test. The reason there aren’t more women in computer science is there aren’t enough women in computer science.

The truth is these stereotypes are ingrained everywhere, and everyone carries these biases around. When the founder of the popular Facebook site “I F***ing Love Science” revealed her gender (although she’d never actively tried to hide it), fans of the page were stunned. In an interview she said: 

“Commenters said they were very sort of surprised they had the same bias within themselves. They were saying ‘[I] didn’t realize that I had this, but I obviously do. I never dreamed that I was sexist in any way, I never dreamed that I had this bias, but it’s there. I thought you were a guy.”

And it’s not surprising really, when these stereotypes get perpetuated and replicated everywhere we look. Despite the fact that there are more female STEM-literate roles in films and on TV (like Natalie Portman’s physicist in Thor, and Sandra Bullock’s doctor/astronaut in Gravity), many shows play on the old biases. CBS’ The Big Bang Theory has typecast female scientists into the “weirdo” role and the only other female character is the normal non-scientist. I personally find the show funny and entertaining because I can see its satirical side, being “behind the scenes” myself, so to speak. But for people who are not in STEM, this might be interpreted as a true representation of what STEM communities are like.

A study conducted by Sapna Cheryan from the University of Washington found that students who did not do computer science believed computer scientists to be intelligent but with poor social skills. They were also perceived as liking science fiction and spending hours playing video games. Some participants even went so far as to describe computer scientists as thin, pale (from being inside all the time), and having poor hygiene.

Participants were also asked to read articles claiming that computer scientist no longer fit those stereotypes, and another which claimed they do. The articles were identical with the exception of their opposing claims. While men were unaffected, women who read the article with non-stereotypical images were significantly more interested in majoring in computer science than women who read the article with gendered stereotypes.

The problem with these stereotypes have been outlined in several research papers, and even to those of us who study and work within STEM, these biases come so naturally. I frequently catch myself defaulting to male language (he, him, his) when speaking about work, research or people I don’t know. It’s a constant battle to undo years of being exposed to these stereotypes, and even though I know that we can’t all fit in to these narrow templates, it’s difficult to break away from an old habit.

One small change that might have a big impact is our spoken language . If you don’t know the gender, don’t assume it’s a man and maybe use “they” instead? These conscious choices that we make will eventually lead to a bigger change, and a different perception.

If you have any good examples of communities, websites or people who break these stereotypes, or just tips and tricks on how to stop enforcing stereotypes, please share them here. I’m sure we would all benefit from some new shades of STEM.

The CataLyst: The Myth About Maths

Last year the Institute For Fiscal Studies published a report stating that children who are good at maths at the age of 10 will go on to earn 7% more at 30 than an “otherwise identical” child. It’s worrying then, with the already existing salary gap, that girls are trailing behind boys in maths in many developed countries. The latest results from the OECD Pisa Test show that in most countries girls underperform boys in mathematics; among the highest-achieving students, the gender gap in favour of boys is even wider.

Nature vs. Nurture
But boys are not innately better at maths than girls right? For a long time, the performance gap in maths between boys and girls was explained using nature and biology. Boys were more logical, and girls more creative. Recently though, more and more research supports the nurture over nature argument. If this is true (which I think it is), it’s really scary that according to code.org, the cultural side is getting worse. The numbers are terrifying and fewer girls are doing maths, physics and computer subjects at school here in the UK.

Last year, the UK education minister Liz Truss, said the gender gap is a result of girls’ lack of confidence in themselves. This makes me think sometimes even the best role models cannot counteract the societal and cultural pressures faced by girls. There may be a clear link between confidence and performance, but despite the bleak figures there is hope.

Social Equality and Equality in STEM
If we look at the figures on a global scale, the maths gender gap in certain countries is almost non-existent. These are the countries that also happen to offer more equal opportunities and resources to men and women. The general correlation has been found that in more equitable societies, the STEM gender gap is significantly reduced. In countries like Iceland, Sweden and Norway the results from various tests show no difference in how girls and boys perform, whereas in countries like Turkey and even the UK, girls scored on average 23 and 14 points less than boys respectively.

I know that here in the UK, we like to think of ourselves as forward thinking, equal and progressive – and to a certain extent we are – but the numbers speak for themselves. Girls are not worse than boys at STEM subjects, but it’s difficult to be the first girl doing a Physics A-Level if none of your girlfriends are. It can’t be down to the individual alone to change the view of society. Although young girls all over the country and the world are already going against the trend, something needs to happen on a larger scale.

The way we view girls in media influences the way girls look at themselves.

We have to ask ourselves what can by done by government, locally in our communities, through schools and parenting, as well as on social media to change the culture and perceptions of girls in STEM. Only then will we be able to offer equal opportunities and give girls the chance to prove gender doesn’t matter.

The CataLyst: Let’s Talk About Role Models

First, I’d like to thank everyone for the warm reception of my first post on STEMinist. I’m very excited to be here and hope to grow with this column and everyone who reads it, gaining new experiences and perspectives along the way. In this post I want to expand a bit on role models and what I mentioned briefly last time:

You can’t be what you can’t see.

To do that, however, I feel I should tell you a bit about my journey to where I am today.

The First Type of Role Model: Awakening Interest
I was always a good student and enjoyed studying. There were no subjects I found particularly difficult, but there were those I enjoyed more than others. In secondary school a new teacher really opened my eyes to maths and science. This teacher was enthusiastic, explained things well, listened to students and was never condescending in how he treated people of different ability levels. During the three years he taught my class, everyone wanted to do well in maths and science; everyone wanted to earn his respect. I knew a lot of my classmates had never enjoyed maths and science before, but now made an effort and thought it was fun to go to those classes. This is the first type of role model, the one that gets a child’s attention, awakens an interest and keeps it.

The Second Type of Role Model: Nurturing Potential
In high school/A-levels I continued my focus on maths and science. I studied in the IB (International Baccalaureate) and chose to do Maths, Physics and Chemistry more in-depth. Here again, I was influenced by three fantastic teachers. My chemistry teacher was a woman in her 60’s and had taught chemistry her entire career. Her experiments in class always failed, but her teaching was structured and guiding. When I struggled, she listened and helped, not letting me resign to ‘I don’t understand‘. She pushed me to get a higher grade than I originally thought I could achieve, and wrote a fantastic personal reference for my university application. This is the second type of role model, the one who sees potential and nurtures it into something more.

The Third Type of Role Model: “I want to be like her”
Starting university was a shock, not only culturally (I moved to a new country) but in the way teaching was structured.  It opened my eyes to just how much ‘man’ was around me. My first two years studying Chemical Engineering, I spent a lot of time questioning whether I had actually made the right choice. Two things made me stick with it (besides stubbornness):

  1. The first was a lecturer who taught some of our classes from the third year onward. This was the first time I’d seen a woman doing what I wanted to do. Not only was she inspiring just by being there, she was also approachable, helpful and understanding. More importantly, she didn’t compromise just because she was a woman. She became my personal mentor and no matter what doubts and questions I had, she seemed to have an answer, because she had been there herself. This is the third type of role model, the one you can directly identify with and say, “I want to be like her.”
  2. The other thing that made me stick with Chemical Engineering leads me to where I am today. I took a year off of university before my final year and worked in an engineering consultancy office for 13 months. This office showed me a mix of 50/50 men and women working together as engineers. Yes, there were issues, and yes there was a vague air of the old boys’ club that sometimes surfaced, but it was a change from university. These women spoke up when they felt things were unfair, and I went back to finish my degree with a different mentality as a result.

Searching for the Next Role Model
Today, I find myself surrounded by colleagues from a wide range of backgrounds, but what I don’t see is that next stage of Role Model to look up to. There are few senior female engineers and even fewer women in senior management.

To a certain extent, “You can’t be what you can’t see,” rings very true during the early years that shape our choices in life. I wouldn’t have ended up where I am today without a lot of guidance and inspiration along the way. But now that I’m here, and know exactly what’s missing, it’s my job to fill that role.

Whatever stage we are in our careers as women in STEM, we have to pave the way to make it easier for future generations of girls to get to where we are. At every fork in the road, when I personally chose to stay in STEM, I know others didn’t because they lacked the right role models.

What inspired you to stay in STEM, and what can we do to make choosing STEM easier for every girl who’s questioning it today?

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Introducing “The CataLyst,” a column about women in STEM

When I started my undergraduate course in Chemical Engineering back in 2005, it hit me almost immediately that the distribution of men to women was about 80/20. I have to admit I’d never reflected much on gender equality before. Having grown up in Sweden (one of the most gender equal countries in the world1), inequality had never affected me much. With the exception of the ever present media biases and “boys will be boys” attitudes, I have had a lucky escape.

Entering the workplace a couple of years later (the same place I still work today), I was again very lucky. My colleagues couldn’t have been more diverse (gender and ethnicity) if you’d blindly picked them from each corner of the world. As a result, the inequalities I’ve come to know are through working away from home and the stories told by my friends, colleagues, online communities and the media. It’s been a wake-up call, and I’m slowly realising that even in the most diverse offices of the most diverse and progressive companies, us women have something working against us: the gender roles that are placed on us by society.

In the Western world today, women still only represent 24% of the STEM workforce2 and the women who work in these fields still earn overall a third less than men, at all income levels3. Why is it that the dropout rate for STEM subjects in school rise rapidly among girls when they enter secondary school? And at university, how come certain STEM orientated courses still see zero uptake of female students?

In the film Miss Representation from 20114, Marie Wilson, the founder and president emeritus of the White House Project5 said, “You can’t be what you can’t see,” and although she was referring to how women are represented in media, this rings true for STEM as well. There aren’t enough female STEM leaders, managers and role models for girls at school to look up to and identify with when they’re making their choices about what they want to be when they grow up. This makes it all the more important for those of us who do work in these fields to be vocal and a stronger force for change.

Through this blog I want to be one of those voices, talking about the ups and downs of working in such a male dominated industry. I will write about the issues we face on a day to day basis, try and shed a bit more light on the problems but also help form part of the solutions. Being more vocal means standing up to inequality, speaking my mind and showing an example where women don’t have to just accept the situations and circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Working towards making STEM more attractive to young girls by breaking down boundaries and misconceptions is beneficial to future generations of women as well as the industry as a whole. I hope this blog will generate some interesting discussions and viewpoints, and I welcome you all to get involved.

Cata