Rubin discovered evidence for the existence of dark matter. Summers suggested that the under-representation of women in science and engineering could be due to a “different availability of aptitude at the high end and innate genetic differences in the brain of men and women”.
His theory ignored systemic patterns of discrimination and socialisation that breed inequality. It was also a galvanising slap that led to a significant rise in initiatives for increasing the number of women in the male-dominated fields of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). But the problem persists. While women earn 41% of PhDs, they make up a scant 28% of tenure-track faculty at universities.
Disciplines like biology and psychology enjoy greater gender parity than computer science or engineering. And, countries like Portugal, the UK, and Germany have solid women in science training programmes. In Germany, Angela Merkel, a physicist, has broken the ultimate glass ceiling having served as chancellor for over a decade. Some institutions and granting agencies are also beginning to offer family leave, provide child-care facilities, and stop the tenure clock when women fall pregnant or need to care for elderly or sick family members.
The problem of women in STEM is complex. In many regions of the world women still find themselves in situations similar to the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai, where education is a risk to their life. To strike the right balance to bridge the STEM gender gap, we must first accept that such a gap exists, and then identify sustainable solutions to tackle the problem. These solutions have to appeal not only to women, but must also benefit men and the scientific enterprise at large.
Proactive measures must be used to recruit female talent into STEM. Camps that design, develop and launch digital learning games would get young women computing and thinking entrepreneurially. Participants would learn how to code, design and develop learning games about any STEM topic, and how to launch the game on the web or via a Kickstarter campaign.
Similarly, “fab labs” and “makerspaces” can highlight creativity, discovery and inquiry and boost female students’ confidence. Lesson plans can be developed from these informal activities to guide proactive instruction in schools and universities. In addition, establishing councils of advisers that mentor students would provide young women with role models.
Diversity is essential in science. It recruits new ideas, different perspectives and fresh approaches to problem-solving. We have to increase the participation of women in science at multiple layers, in academic institutions, government agencies and industry to quell societal norms.
Ivana Gadjanski is research assistant professor, Innovation Centre at Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, University of Belgrade; Mandë Holford is associate professor, Chemical Biology, Hunter College, City University of New York; Maryam Zaringhalam is post-doctoral fellow, The Rockefeller University