Gender equality in Science and Technology: what numbers don’t tell

25.11.2012 - 15:17
Gender balance in science and technology is a complex subject with lots of aspects to be considered but often translated in terms of percentage of female researchers, or directors of departments.
What do such numbers tell us? Very little. Different factors contribute to create those low figures. Discrimination? Certainly, most often subtle and creeping as some studies  recently showed. Stereotypes? Likely. Ask young girls what they visualise when they think of a woman scientist. Too often they will see an unattractive, socially unsuccessful lady locked down in a cold laboratory or a shabby nerd in front of a PC. And fighting stereotypes with a strong opposite message is dangerous: you can easily slip up, like the story of the recent EC video on Science as 'a girl thing', teaches us. Critics to that video as well often end up in enhancing the stereotype. Cultural and social pressures? Probably it’s the bigger factor. In a 1998 study, Anne Colley argued that girls were often dissuaded from opting for Science and Technology subjects. The images of the instrumental male and the expressive female, suggested by Talcott Parsons in the 1950s, still persists over male and female attitudes, with Information Technology taught in ways more appealing to boys than girls and girls more successful in Maths and Science when taught in single sex classes. Yet, the strongest pressures often come from familial and the closest social environment when driving young women to the trade-off choice of  career vs family.
Real free personal choice? We could also consider that women may start a scientific career and have opportunities open but then they do prefer to opt for something else following their own free will.  In the future I suspect that this last one will become the only factor influencing differences in gender participation to scientific and technical careers paths and to top management roles.