The International Day of Women and Girls in Science was on 11 February. The annual observance was established by the United Nations in December 2015 and may still have a way to go before it is celebrated as widely as International Women’s Day on 8 March.
As the name suggests, the day is about women in the sciences, and more specifically, how they are under-represented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). At Åbo Akademi University, the proportion of female students is 60%, but only 10% of the students in IT are women. If we look at all of the technical fields, it is only slightly less unequal — women make up 27% of students.
Alongside these statistics, we can pose some more or less provocative questions. Is this a problem? Why is it a problem? Should we not think about why men do not apply to, for example, Caring Science, where, at Åbo Akademi University, 89% of students are women? Why is STEM in particular so important?
Alone in class
Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education Mia Heikkilä, who in her research has worked with gender and gender equality challenges throughout the education system, has investigated how students belonging to the gender minority in a gender-dominated educational programme, such as male students in early childhood education or female IT students, experience their position as a minority. Female students can, when they are the gender minority, be ostracised, harassed or accused of being less competent than their fellow students. Male students in a corresponding situation receive a different treatment.
— When men apply for study positions in subjects that have a majority of women, men are perceived as heroes, as having better knowledge, as incredibly suitable, says Heikkilä.
The competence of female students, on the other hand, is questioned by both teachers and male fellow students. It goes without saying that one’s studies quickly run into a dead end when those around you have trouble accepting your presence. But the solution cannot be, must not be, that the individual student is expected to toughen up and fix it on their own.
Being seen as a forerunner and a welcome addition to an industry dominated by the other sex thus seems to be reserved for male students, according to the article Differentions in visibility by Heikkilä, Isaksson and Stranne. The flip side of that coin is when too much emphasis is placed on gender and the male student feels seen and appreciated only because he is a man.
For female students, however, it can be a matter of trying to survive, despite all obstacles. One strategy for women in male-dominated areas is to try to blend in as best they can and not attract the wrong kind of attention. A small representation simply does not allow room for change, so old patterns can easily continue uninterrupted.
— In a situation with few women, for example in the engineering profession, women tend to adapt to the male norm. They agree to the conditions in order to not be exposed, to not be singled out. Then they may join the group, says Heikkilä.
The risks of discrimination are more or less everywhere, but they become greater in a context where the gender division is clearer. Workplace culture and management attitudes are important in addressing these issues.
At the admissions stage it is already too late
There are societal expectations of what girls and boys should study, of what they should become. Already at a young age, they are encouraged to take on different kinds of interests, and they are expected to adapt to the prevailing norms, that is, the unwritten rules of society that we collectively follow.
— A requirement is placed on you if you apply to somewhere you are not expected to apply. A requirement that you must be prepared to explain yourself, says Heikkilä.
The admissions process of institutions of higher learning is in many cases mechanical. Emphasis is increasingly being placed on the applicants’ matriculation exam results, and although the opinions about that system are not always positive, at least it treats all applicants equally. But some of the criticism of the admissions reform focuses on how it demands that students should know what they should focus on at an earlier stage of their young lives.
Everyone pays the price
Both in technology fields and in cultural education, there are cases of inappropriate treatment and criminal acts between students, and between staff and students. And women are more often exposed to this than men.
In addition to the victims paying a high price, possibly with lifelong trauma after their experiences, the damage has a ripple effect. How many potential good applicants have applied, and continue to apply, elsewhere because of the negative image they have of a study department or workplace?
When someone belonging to the gender minority continues to be treated differently, when the few who have applied to and been admitted to educational programmes then dropped out or graduated with a bitter taste in their mouths, the prejudices and structures that stand in the way of real and sustainable change are only strengthened. On the other hand, each graduate with a positive experience of their study place becomes a good and reliable ambassador for all kinds of recruitment. But in order for the image of an industry to change, the industry itself must first change.
— The universities need to have a clear plan and a clear idea. There is every opportunity to do something here, says Heikkilä. People should feel well throughout their study career; they should thrive and feel that five years have been positively invested.