Women and the science education question

March 6, 2011


Elisabeth Kelan is a lecturer in the Department of Management at King’s College London. The opinions expressed are her own. Thomson Reuters will host an International Women’s Day follow-the-sun live blog on March 8, 2011.

Earlier this year, research indicated that few of the contributors to online encyclopedia Wikipedia are women.

It showed that 85 percent of Wikipedia entries are written by men. This leads to a disparity in how knowledge on Wikipedia is constructed: stereotypical male interests receive more coverage than stereotypical female ones.

Is this an indication that women are not participating equally in the information and knowledge society? Do women miss out on creating the world of the future and on lucrative work?

These are some of the questions raised by the United Nations theme of the International Women’s Day ‘Equal access to education, training and science and technology: Pathway to decent work for women’.

One might presume that with more women than men in higher education in the developed world, gender disparities in education have disappeared or have moved to disfavour men rather than women.

The information and knowledge economy seems to welcome women and their educational attainments with open arms. A different view emerges when one asks if women are studying the right subjects.

The central skills of the future are often said to be found in science, engineering and technology. Traditionally there are few women in those areas but with the omnipresence of technology, one can speculate that girls are no longer alienated from making a contribution here.

In fact, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s PISA study, supports this view.

Asking girls and boys at the age of 15 what they want to be when they are 30, 25 percent of students indicated that they wanted a science career. Based on OECD’s definition science–related careers include engineers and medical doctors.

The good news: There was only a minor gender difference. 24 percent of the boys and 27 percent of the girls want to enter science-related careers. The bad news: a different image appears if we look at the subjects girls and boys want to study.

In that area, 17 percent of the boys and only 2 percent of the girls who voiced an interested in science-related careers expected to study computer sciences. This was true in all countries. 30 percent of boys but only 10 percent of girls wanted to be an engineer. The reverse was true for nursing (30 percent girls, 2 percent boys) and the health services (42 percent girls, 20 percent boys).

We potentially see a shift in health work were more female doctors are present, but a similar movement cannot be observed in computer science and engineering.

Those girls and boys of Generation Y, defined as those born between 1980 and 2000, apparently reproduce many gender stereotypes around science, engineering and technology that previous generations experienced.

While in the global north women now receive education to a similar degree as men, it is men who study the important skills needed in the information and knowledge society. Indeed, it is noticeable that many of the movers and shakers in the tech industry are men. As are most of the contributors to Wikipedia.

Women’s absence from science, engineering and technology means that they lose out on the ability to create technologies that shape the future.

This year’s International Women’s Day topic is a useful vehicle to bring the persistence of gender stereotypes in science, engineering and technology to the fore.

However, one would also hope that there would be a similar day that would raise awareness about the paucity of men in nursing and other health services.

Picture Credit: A woman wears 3D glasses at a games console at the CeBIT computer fair in Hanover March 2, 2011.     REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz

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