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Women overcoming hurdles in science

Tuesday 6th January 2015

The treatment and retention of women in the sciences is not a new topic – it’s one that has had a lot of media coverage in the past couple of years. We’ve covered it here at The Wireless a few times. But just because it has been getting media coverage doesn’t mean it has improved.

17-year-old Hayley van Waas was so fed up by the lack of computer science at her school, she started a lunch time programming course. She’s now doing an internship before heading to university, and says while she’s surrounded by men all the time, she doesn’t feel discriminated against.

But that might not be true. A 2011 report [PDF] by the New Zealand Association of Women in the Sciences found that women with a BSc or PhD earned $30,000 less on average than men with the same qualification level. Women were also under-represented at higher levels of University employment, in funding allocation, and were awarded fewer the top prizes in New Zealand science.

Professor Shaun Hendy tries to break that down at Sciblogs: “New Zealand needs all the scientists and engineers it can get, so the current situation, where a significant proportion of our talent is marginalised, is not acceptable.” Making careers more woman-friendly might help, he says, as would greater reporting of gender gaps in workplaces.

It hasn’t always been this way, NPR’s Planet Money reports; at least in tech. “But here's a good starting place: The share of women in computer science started falling at roughly the same moment when personal computers started showing up in U.S. homes in significant numbers. These early personal computers weren't much more than toys. You could play pong or simple shooting games, maybe do some word processing. And these toys were marketed almost entirely to men and boys.”

Dr Nicola Gaston, a chemist at Victoria University, says gendered behaviours are very apparent in children. But pretty much all the studies suggest, she says, those behaviours exist because children are socialised to behave in certain ways. “Boys are rewarded for being a bit more curious, and a bit more adventurous, and girls are rewarded for being a bit more docile, to put it a bit more extremely.”

But getting women into STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is only part of the problem. Keeping them there is the next step. “At any given conference or company, a few assholes are mean, and those microaggressions or harassments hit the women present. The fewer women, the more bullshit each of us gets,” writes software developer Jessica Kerr. And women leaving have as much effect on the numbers in the industry as does encouraging young women into the field.

I can rattle off studies about implicit bias…but it does start to feel like we’re in an echo chamber

Engineer Michelle Dickinson agrees. “If you are the minority in an industry, how do you feel comfortable and welcome?” Flexible working hours and the language people use are examples she points out. And she says a lot is happening in the industry. Michelle believes there’s a gradual recognition that a more diverse team – not just in gender but in ethnicity, age and ability – will mean better problem solving.

Microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles says her field of biology has no shortage of girls entering the field – but they quickly bump up against the glass ceiling. “So I want a different discussion. Because we’re years ahead of everyone else. So if we don’t solve this problem that’s happening at the upper levels, then this is exactly what is going to happen in chemistry, in physics, when all these amazing women start coming through.”

But Hayley van Waas says that is the first step. “The first thing is to grab their attention and say this is a viable career option.”

Megan Whelan spoke to Hayley, Dr Nicola Gaston, Dr Siouxsie Wiles, and Dr Michelle Dickinson for Radio New Zealand’s The Weekend.

Cover illustration by Holly Worthington

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