Gender bias can be illustrated using a simple Google exercise. Type into Google Translate: “She is a scientist. He is a nurse.”
Translate it into a language that does not have gender pronouns, such as Georgian or Turkish.
When it comes back in English, the result shown after automatic translation is: “He is a scientist. She is a nurse”.
Just as the devil is in the detail, the bias is in the algorithm.
According to the 2015 UNESCO Science Report: Towards 2030, women now account for 53% of the world’s bachelor's and master's graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) but just 30% of researchers. Women leave the sector at much higher rates than men, which represents a waste of social investment and individual effort, and suggests that there are structural problems around retaining women in STEM carriers.
In addition, whereas women have achieved parity in life sciences in many countries, they are consistently underrepresented in engineering and computer science – with direct bearing on algorithms.
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Career choices are not free from the constructs of social barriers. And social barriers are forged from stories we keep telling ourselves, our children and each other.
The lack of positive narratives, built-in gender biases and leaky pipelines for women in STEM careers are well-documented. But the reality is that underrepresentation and the absence of women in shaping science and technology have consequences.
They have affected humanity through most of history, and may affect all of us as we march into an age where algorithms, artificial intelligence and machine learning directly impact social and economic outcomes.
Black and white
To illustrate, let’s turn to narrative. This spring, at the frontier of human exploration, two news stories illustrates the daily challenges women in STEM face.
In April 2019, the first ever image of a black hole was revealed. What was previously thought mission impossible – building an earth-size telescope that could capture an image of that black hole – was realized by the use of an algorithm to piece together black hole data from existing telescopes.
MIT computer scientist Katie Bouman played a significant role in the imaging process. As her story and photo with the hard drives of image data went viral, she was quickly compared to another computer scientist, Margaret Hamilton, who coded for the Apollo mission that helped put a man on the Moon in the 1960s.
However, although Katie Bouman made it clear that she was part of an amazing team of scientists across the globe, some online trolls tried to downplay her role and claimed that her achievements were invented.
In March 2019, a month before the black hole images were released, NASA was obliged to cancel its first all-female spacewalk.
The reason could be cast in the realm of the comical: there were not enough spacesuits to fit the women crew. Planners must have assumed that women would always be just a small part of any flight’s team.
The result? One of the women crew was replaced by a man.
This story exposes common but little-discussed experiences of women, which result from an invisible bias. The world – and space too, it seems – is engineered and designed largely by men for men, revolving around a standard male default.
Bringing women into the fold
So how can we attract and retain women in STEM fields? Well, different countries face different challenges.
Recent research suggests that the reasons why STEM professions do not appeal to women in some societies are multiple and complex.
But what seems to matter most are aspirations that are molded by parental expectations, social norms and lack of information that affect career decisions, and institutional bias that constrain women’s entrance and progress.
Despite the rising demand for researchers and the need to diversify the science community, gender equality in STEM is still a hard sell. But if we do not actively prioritize gender equality, the problem will not solve itself.
No single solution is going to fit every case, but solutions do not need to be costly.
The UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) tries to change the narrative by making the hard sell. The latest session of the CSTD gathered in May brought some of the world’s leading women in STEM, such as Dame Wendy Hall and Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, together to share their expertise and experiences.
As Dame Bell Burnell noted: “Missing women in the work force is a loss of talent. Diversity makes workplaces more robust, flexible and successful than those that are more monochromatic.”
The CSTD has also launched a dialogue with concrete recommendations for policymakers in science, technology and innovation on how to promote the equality and status of women in research.
Changing the narrative at a policy level is the first step in facilitating how we change minds. The heavier hand of the law matches the softer appeal of a good story.
The recommendations focus on the participation and promotion of women in the research workforce, on social norms, on research design and on funding agencies.
Contributions from Shirley Malcom, Londa Schiebinger, Dorothy Ngila and Roshni Abedin at the CSTD all pointed to the responsibility research funding agencies have in encouraging gender-responsive action while ensuring excellence.
There’s been a lot of energy, enthusiasm and money going into many initiatives to get girls into science and retain them, but the results are still far from satisfactory.
The way forward requires both policy action and the nurturing of family, school and job environments that allow girls and women to be comfortable and confident to conquer STEM fields.