Gender Bias: It Isn’t Just a STEM Problem

Recent initiatives by the federal government have focused on addressing the under-representation of women in STEM fields: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. This approach is partial and perhaps even counterproductive.

I say “partial” because it fails to address the under-representation of women in non-STEM fields, and the under-representation of men in many fields as well. In doing so, it obscures opportunities to learn from a diverse range of data to target efforts more effectively. StatsCan has published data showing that all STEM fields are not impacted equally by gender skew, for instance: the study found that women account for 59% of graduates in Science and Technology, but less than a third of those in Engineering and Math. So the “STEM” problem is really an “EM” issue, at least in Canada (the government cites UN data rather than Canadian data in its campaign launch on women in science–global numbers are significantly worse than Canadian on this point).

Now consider these numbers: only about 5% of nurse practitioners in Canada are men (see page 2 of this pdf); less than 20% of primary and pre-school teachers in Canada are men, and that percentage dropped between 1996 and 2006 (see Table 13). These are good jobs, and if we are going to discuss the way that gender bias affects opportunities in education and work then we need to look at the whole messy picture–where there’s gender parity, where it skews one way and where the other, and, while we’re at it, where imbalances by class, race/ethnicity/nationality, and other demographic factors are in evidence.

A wider view of academic fields also opens the door to historical data from which we might learn. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences has collated data in my field, English Literature: in round numbers, women accounted for two-thirds of undergraduates and only one-third of doctorates in the early 1970s; by 1980, gender parity was achieved at the doctoral level (within a single decade!); by 2014, the gap between undergraduate and doctoral degrees for women had been reduced to less than 10%. So, a higher proportion of men undergraduates in English still go onto the PhD than women undergraduates, but women undergraduates so outnumber men in English programs that we nevertheless end up with slightly more women than men with PhDs in English in the US. So, one kind of gender gap is mostly closed–another remains. Such data highlights the ways in which percentages at one point in time don’t tell the whole picture: if 75% are from one group in first-year courses, and 50% graduate, then arguably that suggests a problem even though there’s parity at the level of final outcomes. What can we learn from such cases?

So, back to the English Literature example: undergraduate classes are still predominantly women, while English departments tend to be at or near gender parity in tenure-stream faculty. What does that tell us? Anecdotally, a common speculation is this: men who major in literature are bucking gender stereotypes, and to do so requires greater commitment to advanced study in the field of the sort more likely to propel someone through graduate work as well. Gender stereotypes are also commonly used to account for the under-representation of men in various other fields. (Note: this is all predicated on a binary model of gender, which we know does not fully account for the complexities of human experience and identifications. We do not yet have data for a more nuanced discussion.)

So, if gender bias acts across nearly all academic disciplines, just in different ways, STEM is only part of a much larger story. If we take gender bias as inherently corrosive to individuals and society as a whole, leading to everything from workplace harassment to keeping people out of fields in which they might be happier as well as more productive, then we need to look beyond STEM and consider the problem of gender bias across all fields.

And this leads me to my point at the outset about the focus on STEM being counterproductive. By looking only at “women in STEM,” we risk reinforcing the very gender biases that can discourage women. Discussions of women in STEM often seem to rely on two tacit assumptions:

  1. STEM is more desirable so, given a fair chance, women would go to into STEM disciplines in much higher numbers;
  2. STEM is more difficult, and so boosting girls’ confidence in math and science is key to addressing the gender imbalance.

Well, no. People can do well and yet leave STEM because they’re more interested in other fields. I decided early in my third year of Honours Applied Math and Theoretical Physics that I was a lot more interested in English literature. For the record, over three decades ago, I was encouraged and assisted by teachers and then professors to excel in STEM, from the middle-school teacher who arranged for me to skip a year of Math so I wouldn’t get bored to the high-school teacher who included me in a group participating in a national Math contest to the Physics professor who said “well done!” when he returned my first test. Sure, I heard the gender-bias rubbish—but mostly from a few male students who we all knew weren’t doing very well. Maybe they would have been happier in Art History.

I’ve met quite a few Social Sciences and Humanities scholars over the years who started out in sciences or even completed BSc degrees–men and women. Degree-switching regularly takes place, though perhaps less so now because of the financial disincentive posed by higher tuition. The desirability of a degree is a matter of personal inclinations, and subject-difficulty is a personal quirk often rooted in past experiences and interests.

Universities can maintain such a broad range of disciplines because of that complex combination of experiences and interests that makes some people good at Biology and others good at Communications, or both, or neither but something else. Colleges and other training programs offer people with other skill-sets yet more options. Yes, doing advanced research in Stellar Dynamics requires a highly specialized set of skills and expertise—so does being a concert pianist or being a researcher in Comparative Literature who works with complicated texts in four languages.

So, again, why does gender imbalance in STEM get so much attention? Why are we concerned about the under-representation of women in Math when we face more serious gender imbalances in other fields? For instance, as an aging society, can we afford to continue to draw 95% of nurse practitioners from only one half of the population?

Part of the explanation for the focus on STEM lies in the assumption that STEM drives the economy—at least to the extent that we ignore the significance, say, of the creative industries and the service sector.  After all, an iPad is little more than an expensive paperweight without content, much of which comes from the creative industries (film, television, music, books, games…).

Here’s another part of the explanation: even a passing acquaintance with the history of gender in dominant Western culture teaches us that the assumption of the superiority of men is reinforced by incessantly repeated affirmations of the superiority of the things that men do. Their work is conventionally presented as more difficult and important, whether it’s in the boardroom or on the tennis court—the flipside, of course, is the age-old problem of uncompensated housework traditionally done by women. This is the reason we continue to have a gender pay gap, and see references to “pink-collar” work in the service sector. And if you think that’s fading away, watch the first episode of Riverdale, where the girls scramble to be cheerleaders for the boys’ sports teams.

This pattern of valuing “men’s” work over “women’s” perpetuates as well as arises from gender bias; giving women better access to “men’s” work can shift the balance a little, but it still keeps in place a gendered hierarchy of work and expertise that is systemically reinforced by pay gaps, cultural representations, job descriptions and hiring processes, and so on, and consequently filters down to what children are told they can do, and what they should want to do.

Imagine if all kinds of expertise were respected, and youth could freely choose their educations and careers based on their interests and the abilities that those interests drive them to develop. To get there, and support the potential of all of our students, we need to address the cultural, social, and economic biases that contribute to gender and other demographic imbalances across all university degree programs–not just the few covered by the EM in STEM.


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