A couple of months ago, the Dean of TU Delft asked what the EEMCS faculty could do to attract more female students. According to reports, only one in six students in the EEMCS faculty is a woman. It is a worrying statistic and points to a larger problem of the number of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
A year ago, James Damore, an engineer at Google sent an internal memo stating it was time ‘to be open about the science of human nature’. He asserted ‘that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership’.
These differences, he said, made women less likely to be natural coders. He has since been sacked, sparing his women colleagues the need to prove themselves. It is enticing to believe that professional success stems from our own innate abilities rather than societal norms (that tip the scale largely towards men). Studies by neuroscientists suggest that while there are differences in aptitude, it in no way justifies the skewed gender ratio at work and at universities.
Personally, I chose to study computer science in high school and electrical engineering throughout my bachelor’s and master’s. And, obviously, there were always far more men than women. There are so many, and some very obvious, reasons as to why there aren’t enough women in STEM. But there are some other, more subtle causes.
One example: picture your typical ‘nerd’
One such example is pop culture references. Picture your typical ‘nerd’. It conjures an image of a geeky bespectacled guy in some college hoodie, coding away, illuminated by the monitor light. This man would most likely be touted as a successful college graduate and colleague at the workplace. A lot of cultural assumptions related to intelligence are associated with male adolescence and not enough with female adolescence. A successful woman, on the other hand, brings up an image of a somewhat unattainable ‘superwomen’ – intelligent, well-dressed, mother of two, good-looking, well-mannered … you get the picture.
It is far easier to market the idea of a successful man. And appropriate representation matters. Even in things as silly as video games, you see women in skin-tight costumes selling cars and onscreen, most female superheroes are sexualised in some way (I say ‘most’ and not ‘all’ because of Hermione Granger. She is my favourite childhood superhero).
This influences young girls’ impressions of what they could be when they grow up. Without accurate representation, there will always be some unconscious bias from other people and from within oneself. This innate bias can have a powerful effect on people’s expectations of themselves.
There is no easy 10 bullet point solution to the problem. It is time to move forward with better gender ratios at school and work in a more sustainable manner, slowly working to eliminate unhealthy stereotypes and focussing on proper representation for both girls and boys.