Before 1993, most women that visited ER rooms in America were misdiagnosed with various illnesses, many of them would later be revealed to have had heart disease . A harrowing number of these women were effectively sent to their deaths because of scientific tests that were essentially devoid of any insights on the accuracy of the tests on women. Until 1993 the pervading belief was that women exhibited the same symptoms as men for cardiovascular disease, it was later found out that this was not necessarily true. This new revelation in science caused standard testing methods for cardiovascular disease to be discontinued, by then of course thousands of women had suffered adverse effects to misprescribed drugs that were created on clinical trials focused on the average sized man. This kind of oversight was motivated by the simplistic idea that women are “emotional” or in slightly more scientific terms, that they have physiological imbalances that make their test results unreliable. Surprisingly, this procedural bias continued in the US drug industry from 1850 to 1992 before health regulatory bodies mandated the inclusion of women in clinical trials. It is now known that women exhibit different symptoms to heart disease and perhaps consequently, that more women die of heart attacks than men. Although macabre, the story reveals a cross cutting homogeneity within the scientific enterprise that provokes us into wondering about what else we continue to miss daily because of gender specific valuations. We can only hope that our ignorance is not nearly as fatal as a heart attack.
So far, the story of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) has been one of inclusion, and one that is often overdressed in romanticized gender parity rhetoric. Statements such as “women are equal” and “women as just as capable as men” are often meant to imply that women are just like men, or I imagine that is what most men hear. This could be because men are unfortunately the status quo and sometimes when you are the status quo, it is hard to realize that there is another “quo”. The argument of equality for women in STEM in the formative years was poorly articulated and not well understood. This is true for equality for women in general, perhaps this is why, when faced with some ideas of feminism men are quick to retort that women should do their own heavy lifting or hold their own in a bare knuckle fist fight with a man. Of course the argument is more correctly framed today as an issue of equal rights for women. In the hope of building a more just and equitable society, most of us wish for the equal inclusion of women in both the knowledge and monetary economy because we believe that we have to be fair but I’m afraid this sentiment alone is not enough and in fact undermines the real contribution of women in any economy.
I am sure by now you have guessed that the author of this article is a man, one that until recently often saw it as a duty to the see the equal representation of women as a way to promote just order in the world. What I didn’t know about is the genius of decentralized design and comparative advantage. The truth is men and women are fundamentally different but most of us are guilt-tripped into ignoring why this is a good thing. There is a thing, a keen perspective, call it “gender innovation”- that only women can offer because they are women. This perspective is the billions of female minds thinking and dreaming up inventions to world problems, inventions we will never get to see because they are actively being repressed and downplayed by the dominant male bias. The male bias is an anachronistic bastion that maintains that only male ideas or ideas that solve men’s problems are worth pursuing because civilizations were built predominantly on the achievements of men, this idea is counter-productive to the say the least.
I often liken our predicament to the benefits brought about by extra-terrestrial inventions or technologies meant for space. Autonomous vehicles for instance where envisaged for space and deep-sea exploration because there is no place more foreign or hazardous to us. These technologies have found earthly/terrestrial applications. In order to solve a problem, woman centric or otherwise and because of the obvious motivation, a woman will invent something that can find far reaching applications, widening our inventory of inventions. This is the key to sustainable design and ostensibly the reason nature breeds diversity, because it makes the biosphere more adaptive to an ever changing environment. This is what we’re missing out on, a plethora of woman-built inventions that make us more adaptable to change in political, health, technological, economic and educational ecosystems. This is why the title of this article reads the why it does, “STEM needs more women”. Science and technology actually need the inventions of women, from a purely scientific, economical, functional and unadulterated point of view you cannot not have a sustainable and growing enterprise in science if you willfully crowd out the contributions of other scientist based on their nationality, ethnicity or gender. If you do this then science becomes esoteric and secretive like religious sects crippled by Aristotelian ideas of a universe with a “special” earth at its center. This should be the dominating argument, plain and bare, objectively presented with compelling numbers that show that less than half of a world’s population worth of intellectual raw material is being wasted. It is the thousands of jobs technology is projected to create with only half a work force to fill these jobs. Gender equality rhetoric in isolation is nothing but well-meant platitudes that mythologise the benefits of real equality.
In our experience teaching computer science thinking and programming to primary age girls, we found that the greatest challenge is convincing the girls that computer science is not a “boys thing”. There is a noticeable lack of a good interpretation of the STEM curriculum that makes it hard for girls to imagine themselves as thriving scientists and engineers. The curriculum is often presented in a skewed way, especially at primary ages it suggests that boys are more suitable for STEM jobs because they have an early experience playing games and toys related to STEM jobs. Scientific jobs are not easy but primary education should not scare girls from choosing STEM careers, same there should be no illusions about how much societal forces will try to discourage them, they should be made aware of the male bias. Women are early adopters of technology, to encourage our Computer Science girls class we often lead with explaining that the worlds first computer programmer was a woman, lady Ada Lovelace. To drive this point home we make references to the 1940s when most men worked hardware engineering jobs while women “manned” office desk jobs working with software and becoming the world’s first software engineering work force, in fact the term “software engineering” was coined by Margaret Hamilton, a woman. Obscure stories about women’s contributions to computer science are bountiful, read this report on the ENIAC six, or this one about the history of programming. . When teaching the girls, you have to situate them in a historical and present day reality all the while checking your own vantage point and bias.The best way to encourage participation of girls in STEM is to give them role models, increasing the prominence of women in STEM galvanises their enthusiasm to pursue STEM careers. Of course dispelling the myths of the male stereotype gets harder when there are daily reminders that there are those who think women have no place in computer science. The gamer gate controversy is an example of how misogynistic sentiment can sometimes scare women out of the tech industry.
Debunking the male bias doesn’t happen without debunking cultural and racial constructs.It is undoubtably harder for black women to pursue careers in STEM, even with inclusion programs the overall number of black women in STEM fields has remained alarmingly low. Cultural generalisations that commit women to other professions are a greater challenge to black women. The admission of black women in academia is often just part of meeting a diversity quota, this makes for a good splash of color on the university personnel page. Academic brilliance of women from minority groups is even less acknowledged in academia, so much so that there is an invention of the word “Minority Academia Ghetto”, a place where the non-functional, non-essential minority staff of universities are relegated to. It is evident that minority groups have been kept out of post doctoral and higher management positions, this further marginalizes black women and causes them to suffer from depression and impostor syndrome. Clearly we have a long way to go before women feel completely welcome in STEM but good progress is being made all around, the world is slowly realizing that women will offer an incalculable contribution to science if they are allowed to participate on an even playing field. A more productive world of science would have us see a shift from an emphasis on the gender meritocracy that relies on ideas of victimhood and pity praise, to a realization that excluding women is slowing down innovation that would otherwise make us a more advanced society.
Check out the following resources if you want to get into STEM