Picture a scientist. Chances are, you saw a white man in a lab coat. Similarly, when asked to name a notable scientist, most people would think of a male. Despite the astounding contributions women and gender diverse people make to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), they do not receive the same recognition for their achievements as men. By celebrating women in STEM, we hope that girls recognise their own capacity for achieving their dreams in STEM, and that boys see girls as equally capable of making contributions to STEM, and that together they contribute to a society that revels in equal representation.
This blog post is designed to give you background information into this deeply important and complex issue to assist you when exploring it with your students. It specifically delves into:
- What is gender bias?
- Gender bias in STEM
- Gender bias in the classroom
- Strategies for tackling gender bias in the classroom
- What is Stile doing?
What is gender bias?
Gender bias is the preferential treatment of one gender over another, most commonly of men over women. Most acts of gender bias are small, unconscious, shruggable: from the temperature setting of air conditioners to helping their mum serve up Christmas lunch, from being introduced as a ‘doctor’ 23% less to male-only medical studies being applied to them, from being underrepresented in STEM field and management roles, to higher unemployment rates and lower incomes. When you add these up, it leads to a society where women, for no reason other than their gender, do not achieve the same success as their male equivalents. It is the big and the small acts, and it starts when we're young and continues into our professional careers.
Gender bias in STEM
“Even today, in the 21st century, women and girls are being sidelined in science-related fields due to their gender. Women need to know that they have a place in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and that they have a right to share in scientific progress.”
— Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General
STEM has not reached gender parity (Gewin, 2019). It remains largely dominated by men, particularly at more senior-ranking positions of scientific organisations. As Ceridwen Fraser said, “women come into science and research in droves; it’s how they progress – or don’t – through the ranks that is the problem”. In 2016, women represented 50% of the university-qualified science population in Australia but only 29% of the STEM labour workforce (Office of the Chief Scientist, 2020). This suggests that although women are incredibly capable of obtaining formal scientific qualifications, they are not being employed at the same rate as men. The underrepresentation of women in the workforce is systemic and has many causes including women performing more unpaid care and domestic work, thereby limiting time for paid work, as well as discriminatory hiring practices and lack of work flexibility (Workplace Gender Equality Agency, 2019).
Working as a scientist
Women have made countless important contributions to STEM that deserve recognition. It’s important that we celebrate their achievements for everything that they are. We must also call out the gender-based barriers these women faced along their journey to make it clear that they aren’t acceptable and that, as a society, we need to fix them.
Female scientists face a myriad of gender-based issues and research suggests that these issues have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic (Moodley & Gouws, 2020).
Lack of recognition
Female scientists do not receive the same recognition as their male counterparts. This can be everything from citations, awards, pay, interviews, speaking roles at conferences or panels, and being seen as an “expert” in their field (Moodley & Gouws, 2020). One example of this is the number of women who have won a Nobel Prize for chemistry. Currently, only seven women have won this prize; two of these went to Jennifer Dounda and Emmanuelle Charpentier this year for the development of CRISPR (Nobel Prize, 2021). In contrast, 179 men have won the Nobel Prize for chemistry. Although Jennifer and Emmanuelle have received their rightful recognition, women’s accomplishments have often been overlooked in favour of men’s (Dominus, 2019). In fact, science historian Margaret Rossiter coined the term the ‘Matilda Effect’ where female accomplishments are attributed to their male colleagues. For example, Jocelyn Burnell’s work on pulsars helped her male supervisor win a Nobel Prize. Esther Lederberg’s work on replica plating helped her husband and his team win a Nobel Prize. Chien-Shiung Wu’s work disproving the law of parity was also not acknowledged despite helping her colleagues win a Nobel Prize. The examples go on. Read their stories here.
Increased family and teaching responsibilities
This lack of recognition also extends to the increased responsibilities women have both at home and in a teaching capacity compared to their male counterparts (Viglione, 2020). The “publish or perish” saying in research identifies the need to publish to succeed. By spending more time teaching, female researchers have less time to research and publish, thereby impacting their opportunities to succeed. Research also suggests that women are also more likely to be asked and accept tasks with low promotability that may even hinder their career advancement compared to men (Babcock, et al. 2017).
Lack of role models
There’s a frustrating cycle where the lack of women in science perpetuates a lack of female role models meaning that women don’t have this same support network. Women are also less likely to reach senior ranking positions, particularly if they’ve had children (Viglione, 2020).
Studies suggest that the processes within scientific institutions also discriminate against women. These processes include hiring, pay rises, performance reviews, promotions and even external issues like decreased research funding and worse outcomes of the peer review process (Moodley & Gouws, 2020).
Working as an engineer
Compared to in science, there are far less women working as engineers. To start with, far fewer women complete engineering university qualifications in Australia compared to other countries. Between 2015 and 2018, 23.2% of engineering graduates in Australia were female, compared to twice that in Arab States e.g. 48.5% in Algeria and 42.2% in Morocco, and Latin America e.g. 41.7% in Cuba and 47.5% in Peru (UNESCO, 2021). The percentage of female engineers actually working in Australia as engineers decreases to 15%, the lowest participation in any STEM field (Office of the Chief Scientist, 2020). Female engineers report many of the same issues as female scientists including lower pay, lack of role models, lack of work flexibility and underrepresentation in senior positions (Caldwell, 2017; Engineers Australia, 2018).
Australia's STEM Workforce Report 2020 also identifies lack of job security, social and cultural barriers, gender discrimination, sexual harassment and the impact of career disruptions as barriers for women working in STEM and more broadly (Office of the Chief Scientist, 2020).
By addressing the issues facing women in STEM in our places of work, our classrooms and in society as a whole, we can encourage more women to enter and thrive in STEM careers.
Suggestions for tackling gender bias
This is a very complex, systemic issue that requires everyone to play a part. In society, we have to actively look for gender bias and call it out.
This article details tips from six female researchers on navigating gender barriers in the lab (Powell, 2018). Their suggestions are:
- Seek senior allies
- Model expectations
- Keep pushing
- Build confidence
- Speak up
- Do your homework
Some men may be in a privileged position that they don’t initially “see” gender bias around them and therefore may not even realise it exists. In this episode of the Working Scientist podcast, two male scientists discuss the steps they took to identify discriminatory practices around them and the actions they took, including active observation and reflection, and targets for including more women (Byrne, 2021). Paul Walton and Sean Hendy both had interesting stories on why they take action on gender bias:
“...whether I like it or not as a white, middle-aged man, I've enjoyed all the advantages that the scientific world can offer me, to the point where it's the analogy I draw, it's a bit like being in a cycle race, I've been given secretly some performance-enhancing drugs and that, as we all set off on the race of this great competition in science, it's perhaps no surprise that occasionally I'll win a cycling stage, or, to put it scientifically, win a prize or get a grant or get a paper published. And from my perspective, then, as a guy who's enjoyed all the advantages, I can't then separate myself from the thought that that victory or that achievement is tainted. It's tainted in some way because it's been gained unfairly. And that through that lens, I find myself wanting to speak out about gender equality, not only to raise awareness of the problem, but also to do my best to offset the advantages that I personally have had as a scientist.”
— Paul Walton
“Often the burden is placed on them, women, to drive change. Again that's not fair. That's holding them back from doing their science. I think the burden of making change has to be shared equally otherwise, it's simply going to perpetuate the same sort of inequity that we've had for so long, right? Where you can, as a male, you can sort of focus on your work, you've maybe not got the same sort of expectations from your family, from society about the other roles that you might play, you know, crank out the publications, get the grants, and success will breed success. And, and of course, that leaves people who are trying to make change, less able to get grants, less able to further their own careers. And that kind of perpetuates the problem. So I think it is about sharing that burden equally. A lot of extremely capable women scientists who don't need the help of men. But actually, it's about sharing that burden equally, so that actually they can reach their potential.”
— Sean Hendy
Kendall Powell followed up her 2018 article with another article in 2019 detailing how some men are challenging gender inequity in the lab. Their suggestions include:
- Call out the realities of bias
- Say no to all-male panels “manels” (this article goes into more detail)
- Stop replying, start listening
- Balance gender at the top
- Ally is a verb that requires action
- Step back and make space
Gender bias in the classroom
As a teacher, you have an amazing opportunity to influence students’ behaviour and world views, to encourage them to think critically about the world and support them in exploring their passions. Like all other parts of society, gender bias and stereotypes exist. Research has shown that the STEM gender bias starts in early childhood and continues into tertiary education and professional careers (UNESCO, 2020).
Examples of gender bias include:
- girls not being seen as being good at maths or science
- girls being seen as bossy
- the use of masculine language for groups of boys and girls
- boys not being allowed to be upset
- boys calling out more, demanding their teachers’ attention or talking over girls
- excusing disruptive behaviour by saying “boys will be boys”
- boys being asked more questions than girls
- boys being asked more often to demonstrate up the front of the classroom
- girls more likely to be praised for the appearance of their work or for “trying” but not necessarily the quality of it
Teachers can play a critical role in reducing gender bias and encouraging students to follow their passions, including those in STEM.
Strategies to tackle gender bias in our classrooms
The most important part of tackling gender bias is assessing current practices and being open to change.
Sadker and Zittlman (2007) suggest observing and recording teacher–student interactions in terms of classroom geography and question level to detect bias. For classroom geography this includes: the number of interactions, the gender of the students interacting with the teacher and the set-up of the classroom. For question level: the number of higher- and lower-order questions and the gender of the student who was asked to respond to either the higher- or lower-order question. The idea behind this is that teachers may be unconsciously providing more interactions to specific parts of the classroom. Research also suggests that teachers ask male students more higher-order questions than female students. By observing interactions and writing this up, it may help teachers identify unconscious gender bias in their classrooms.
In addition, Lerner and Sadker (1999) suggest asking yourself questions when analysing existing classroom behaviours:
- Who do I call on when hands are raised in class: boys or girls? Do I address them in the same manner?
- Do I equally scold both genders when problems and issues arise in the classroom?
- Do I distribute classroom duties equally or do I contribute to the stigma that girls should clean and boys should deal with technical issues?
- Do I ask higher level questions of each gender?
- Do I have the same expectations of all of my students?
- Do I provide equal amounts of help, feedback, encouragement and praise?
- Do I use gender-free language in the classroom?
- Do I interrupt one gender more often than the other?
- Do I use examples of both genders when teaching a lesson? Is the text I use contributing to gender-biased actions?
Removing bias from resources
Sadker and Zittlman (2007) also suggest reviewing curricular materials to ensure they mirror the society in which the teacher and students live. They suggest looking through teaching materials for evidence of different biases including underrepresentation, stereotypes, tokenism, discrmination and abuse, and removing them. They also suggest that this could be an activity for students where they go out and find examples of bias in other parts of society and bring them to class.
- Avoid using gender to group students
(By making gender a distinctive category, students may think it matters more than it does.)
- Use inclusive, non-gendered language
- Set matching expectations for both genders
- Use gender-balanced examples
- Mix up traditional situations and stereotypes
- Create a classroom environment where both girls and boys are encouraged, questioned and reinforced
- Actively integrate groups by not allowing self-segregation
- Apply classroom rules fairly for both boys and girls
- Allow wait time of 3-5 seconds before calling on or responding to students
- Audit your resources and classroom visuals
- Evaluate students’ assigned and organic roles
(Stuart, 2021; Think or Blue, 2019)
What are we doing at Stile?
We want Stile to be accessible for every student. We seek to promote diversity of thought, culture and gender, and aim to be inclusive through language and references, topics, and how our technology works. Each year, we create resources to encourage more young women to see STEM as a real possibility for their future and also to celebrate some amazing things women are currently doing.
In recent years, we've created career profiles with incredible accompanying posters by Gus Morainslie. We’ve also hosted round-table panel discussions and webinars with inspiring women and run our software engineering internship.
Based on the advice above, we recently completed our own internal audit of our collection of lessons, website and career profiles to ensure they’re representative of our society. Of the scientists depicted in our lessons, 56% are female. We’re committed to ensuring that our lessons meaningfully depict diverse cultures and genders.
Women in STEM: Software Engineering Internships
Outside of our learning resources, we recognise the importance of gender equality in strengthening our business operations. We aim to improve the gender balance of our workforce, particularly in professional roles, technical roles and in leadership positions. We don’t think young women are being given enough opportunities to shape our shared future and we want to help change that.
In 2021, we launched our first-ever year-long software engineering internship for women-identifying and non-binary people. It’s designed to help combat systemic inequality of access by giving historically excluded demographics an inroad into software engineering. Our interns learn how to code under the guidance of a mentor from our engineering team and work directly on our platform.
Our two new interns, Lavinia and Cham, have just started for 2022. We'll continue this internship into 2023, so stay tuned for more details!
Unit: Women in STEM career profiles
View career profiles here.
Each year, we add to our collection of Women in STEM career profiles.
Recently, we created a set of three career profiles detail the achievements of four inspiring women with an accompanying poster series by Gus Morainslie. You can purchase the posters here. All proceeds from the sale of these posters goes to the Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria.
Career profile: Dr Emmanuelle Charpentier and Dr Jennifer Doudna
“I’m proud of my gender. I think for many women there’s a feeling that, no matter what they do, their work will never be recognised as it might be if they were a man. I’d like to see that change and I think this is a step in the right direction.”
— Jennifer Doudna
The first career profile is on Emmanuelle Charpentier, a French microbiologist, and Jennifer Doudna, an American biochemist. Emmanuelle and Jennifer won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for creating genetic “scissors”, known as CRISPR/Cas9, which can edit the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with precision.
The lesson explores what CRISPR is and the challenges Emmanuelle and Jennifer faced on their journey to become scientists. Students also explore the lack of recognition received by women in science as they compare the number of Nobel Prizes won by males and females in each category. Finally, students look to celebrate women in STEM. They explore a piece of artwork that showcases the work of Emmanuelle and Jennifer and then create their own social media post recognising the work of another female scientist.
View lesson here.
Career profile: Dr Stephanie Wilson
“Being adventurous and being explorers is in our nature. It’s in the history of how we’ve developed Earth and so that naturally continues to the space frontier.”
— Stephanie Wilson
The second career profile is on Stephanie Wilson, an American engineer and a NASA astronaut. A veteran of three space shuttle flights, she has spent 42 days in space. In 2020, NASA announced that Stephanie is among 18 astronauts training for the Artemis program. As such, she could be the first woman ever to walk on the moon.
This lesson explores Stephanie's journey to becoming an astronaut. Students will reflect on the challenges Stephanie faced on the way to achieving her dream job and identify a challenge they’ve faced and how they overcame it.
View lesson here.
Career profile: Dr Amy Wong
The final career profile is on Amy Wong, a Canadian biologist. Amy Wong is combining stem cells, gene editing and computer models to study lung development and treat diseases such as cystic fibrosis.
In this lesson, students will explore how Amy’s research with stem cells is helping improve the treatment for cystic fibrosis. They will also explore other uses of stem cells and complete a research task to learn more about stem cell therapies.
View lesson here.
We’ve created this additional poster to encourage all students, but particularly female students, to dream big. We want them to follow their passions and realise that they can truly achieve anything.
‘Women in STEM: a roundtable discussion’
Last year, Dr Jacqueline Dohaney, Geologist & STEM lecturer at Swinburne University, and Catherine Phillips, Commercial operations manager at Exxonmobil and Professional AFLW player, joined us to discuss unique experiences and perspectives on how to support young women in science. Click here to watch.
Babcock, L., Recalde, M., Vesterlund, L. and Weingart, L. (2017). Gender Differences in Accepting and Receiving Requests for Tasks with Low Promotability. American Economic Review, 107 (3), pp. 714-47.
Caldwell, F. (2017). Almost half of all female engineers report gender discrimination, Sydney Morning Herald.
Byrne, D. (2021) Science diversified: The men who say no to manels. Nature Careers Podcast.
Dominus, S. (2019). Unheralded women scientists finally getting their due. Smithsonian Mag.
Gewin, V. (2019). Gender parity still falls short in Australia’s research workforce. Nature Career News.
Lee, J. (2013). 6 Women Scientists Who Were Snubbed Due to Sexism. National Geographic.
Lerner, P. and Sadker, D. (1999). Gender Equity in the Classroom, GPN.
Moodley, K. and Gouws, A. (2020). How women in academia are feeling the brunt of COVID-19, The Conversation.
Powell, K (2018). How female scientists can confront gender bias in the workplace. Nature Career Feature.
Powell, K (2019). How some men are challenging gender inequity in the lab. Nature Career Feature.
Sadker, D. and Zittlman, K. (2007). Practical Strategies for Detecting and Correcting Gender Bias in Your Classroom. In D. Sadker & E. S. Silber (Eds.), Gender in the classroom: Foundations, skills, methods, and strategies across the curriculum (p. 259–275). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
Stuart, E. (2021). Gender bias at school: where to find it and how to combat it. International Women’s Day Activities.
Viglione, G. (2020). Are women publishing less during the pandemic? Here’s what the data say. Nature News.
(2018). Women in STEM Strategy, Engineers Australia.
(2019). Annual Report 2018 - 2019. Workplace Gender Equality Agency.
(2019). Teachers: 20 Ways to Reduce Gender Bias at School. Think or blue.
(2020). Australia’s STEM Workforce. Office of the Chief Scientist.
(2021). UNESCO research shows women career scientists still face gender bias. UNESCO.
(2021). Nobel Prize awarded women. Nobel Prize.