The leaky pipeline of women in STEAM. A confidence gap?

I must make a confession: when I have to give a presentation, it is a pleasure but also a nightmare to battle my impostor syndrome. Why am I telling you this? Not because it is therapeutic, but because I believe that impostor syndrome is one of the reasons why women and girls do not pursue a STEAM career at university.

When following women’s careers in STEAM, they can be compared to a leaking pipeline, which leaks in so many ways that, in the end, it is empty before it reaches university. As I alluded to above, some women have a drain in potential in that they lack confidence: both, self-confidence and confidence in other people.

I will illustrate it again with a personal anecdote (sorry): when I was invited to present at the European Parliament on this topic in September, the first thing I did was pick up the phone and call my mother to tell her the good news. What did she answer? “Baby, maybe it’s too much for you…”. My mother! She is my biggest supporter!

Our girls and women receive that type of message everyday: from the typical “she’s bossy” versus “He has leadership skills”; to “she’s beautiful” versus “he’s smart”; or “she’s very hard-working” versus “he’s brilliant”. That makes them think that they don’t have mathematical or scientific skills, even if they are getting similar marks than men in other subjects. According to a study published in Science, by the age of 6, girls are less likely than boys to label people of their own gender as “really, really smart”. This is when they are only 6 years old!

Going back to the that pipeline, some women suffer other punctures to their development such as the growth of scientific curiosity, which is a key element in the scientific method. Not because they don’t have it, but simply because they have not been given the opportunity for this curiosity to flourish. However, if we look back in history, women and girls have always been told not to be curious. From Pandora and her famous box to Eve and the apple. In both stories there is the same message: women’s curiosity triggered evil incidents and the misfortunes of Humanity.

Another black hole are the stereotypes associated with STEAM fields. Most people imagine those who work in science as ‘asocial’ and ‘geek’. Not to mention the difficulty of the scientific community to develop a discourse that connects with young people. It is our duty, to show women that with science and technology, they can create and invent things and take active part in all areas of life.

There is also a lack of female role models, toys, women in tv series, films and the media, and that is only a fraction of the issue. Women who do pursue a career in STEM, have other difficulties, such as having to balance work and family life, feeling intimidated in a men’s club and having to cope with ‘mansplaining’ and ‘hepeating’ (nearly two-thirds of women in tech say their ideas are ignored until a man repeats them, study shows), to continually prove our value to the organization.

And why do we need to patch the pipe? Sheryl Sandberg once said that “when you write a line of code, you can affect a lot of people.” That is why half of humanity cannot be left out of the design of algorithms that will shape our future society. Otherwise, we would find examples like the following:

  • We can start with Google Translate. Turkish is a gender neutral language. There is no ‘he’ or ‘she’. But when Google translates it back into English: “She is a cook,” “he is an engineer,” “he is a doctor,” “she is a nurse,” “he is hard-working,” “she is lazy,” and so on. Google Translate works by learning patterns from many millions of examples of translations seen out on the web. Essentially, when an untold number of biases (gender or others) exist in our literature and language — biases, like, the fact that nurses are inherently women or engineers are bound to be men — these can seep through into Google Translate’s output. That is, it learns from a society with biases and it keeps on strengthening those biases.
  • Another tool that works in a similar manner is Google Suggest. What happens when we introduce in the Google search engine “Women should…”.

UN Women Ad Campaign

  • Google needed a better way to understand the relationships between words, so in 2013, researchers created something called word2vec. Word2vec was able to provide numeric vector representations of words, and those vectors could be used to make calculations like: “If you take the word ‘king’ and subtract ‘man’ and add ‘woman,’ what do you get?” The result is obviously the word “queen”. However, when researchers started to dig into the word2vec trained on Google News, they found some more troubling correlations. Correlations like “Man is to woman as computer programmer is to homemaker,” and “Man is to woman as boss is to receptionist.”. And the worst part is that there are many systems that use word2vec to understand language: chatbots, recommendation algorithms, image-captioning programs and translation systems (“Man Is to Computer Programmer as Woman is to Homemaker? Debiasing Word Embeddings”).
  • Paper reference “Men Also Like Shopping: Reducing Gender Bias Amplification using Corpus-level Constraints”. Most machine learning systems, especially deep learning, highly depend on training data. And what a surprise! In image datasets 67% of cooking images have a woman as the protagonist and the algorithm is not able to recognize images of men cooking.
  • Networking and building working relationships often starts in casual contexts. For example, having a beer after work, which some women may not be able to attend due to other familial commitments. Does this happen in the digital world? According to a Carnegie Mellon University study, after creating 1,000 fictitious users (50% women, 50% men) men were shown Google ads with high paying jobs 1,800 times while women were shown it 300 times only.
  • Facebook is letting job advertisers target only men. A review by ProPublica found that 15 employers in the past year, including Uber, have advertised jobs on Facebook exclusively to one sex, with many of the ads playing into gender specific stereotypes.

I think it is clear that we need diverse teams to design technology, in order to captivate different perspectives. But I am not going to simply outline the issues but rather, also offer some solutions:

  • Let’s tell the stories of incredible women who have been pioneers in science and technology but who have, up until now remained somewhat invisible. We must include them in textbooks (the largest study on the presence of women in Spanish educational materials, which analyzed 115 manuals from three publishers, showed that an women appeared 7.5% on average in all subjects) – Women must also feature in films and media depicting STEM related roles, such as Hidden Figures.
  • Let’s also increase the visibility of women who have managed to overcome all these challenges. That’s what we did at the University of Deusto, six years ago when we launched the Ada Byron Prize to Women Technologists.
  • The importance of having close role-models is also of note. As the astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell said, “In addition to Marie Curie, society needs everyday models to generate scientific vocations in girls.” A recent research from Microsoft revealed that the number of girls interested in STEAM across Europe, almost doubles when they have a role model to inspire them. Against this background the University of Deusto developed the Inspira STEAM project. This project aims to increase the scientific and technological vocations among young people between 10 and 14 years old. A group of female professionals carry out team mentoring dynamics with small groups of girls. The facilitators are professional women from the world of research, science and technology who develop their professional activity in different areas (academic, corporate, research, management, etc.) and who mentor young girls on a voluntary basis. The principal goals of the project are to help the girls discover the STEAM field, and strengthen their self-esteem so they are able to choose their path freely. As NASA astronaut Mae Jemison would say: “Never limit yourself by the limited imagination of others.”

While professional women suffer from glass ceilings, girls and young women suffer from “glass corridors” that lead them under the premise of “false freedom”. Thus, we have to work together, so women and girls may chose freely what they want to do when they grow up. Europe has to promote social justice in its policies, and it is not possible to make scientific policy by excluding half of the population.

Lorena Fernández Lorena Fernández Álvarez (@loretahur). Director of the Digital Identity department at the University of Deusto (Spain). Member of the European Commission’s Expert Group to Update and Expand “Gendered Innovations”. LinkedIN.

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