Gender Inequality in STEM and Ada Lovelace Day

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Gender inequality and segregation in STEM fields is a serious concern, one which is made more problematic by unyielding and stereotypical gender division in the school subjects of science and math.  Some theorists use cognitive brain development to explain gender division in STEM fields; the male and female separation in certain academic subjects eventually leads to an inequality for access to certain career paths.  However, this idea of a “female brain” or “male brain” is often discredited by those who support socialization theories.  They argue with equal instruction, access to information, and experience, males and females are equally as capable of excelling in STEM fields.

Yet many recognize how women’s contributions to STEM fields are given less attention and validity than their male counterparts and how we should take steps to change the conversation and foster equality in the workplace.  Students can create such change by participating in events like AU Faculty of Science’s Ada Lovelace Day; this event is designed to raise awareness and fight against systemic bias against women in STEM.

Women’s contributions have historically gone unnoticed in many fields of science and technology, and October 13, 2020 is Ada Lovelace Day, a day to respect and value female’s contributions in STEM.  The official website for Ada Lovelace Day says it hopes “to increase the profile of women in STEM and, in doing so, create new role models who will encourage more girls into STEM careers and support women already working in STEM.” The Finding Ada Network heralds Lady Ada King, Duchess of Lovelace as “the first computer programmer” and an “Enchantress of Numbers.” The primary goal of Ada Lovelace Day is to publicly promote the accomplishments of women in STEM on social media platforms—thereby providing role models and examples for aspiring female innovators.

AU’s Faculty of Science is recruiting students to participate on Ada Lovelace Day, gaining experience and broadening their global awareness of Canadian women in STEM.  This event includes a series of editing webinars/workshops on how to write for Wikipedia, and students will practice their skills by creating biographies on Canadian women in science.  On Ada Lovelace Day, the compiled student biographies will be published on Wikipedia.  AU’s Anne-Marie Scott, Deputy Provost, Academic Operations believes this project is an important step to raising awareness about systemic bias on the internet.  She notes there is a disproportionate number of Wikipedia articles about men, and that gender bias on the internet is problematic because it gives the false impression women are not active and contributing to STEM research.  Scott says AU’s Faculty of Science will use “Ada Lovelace Day as a focal point around which to add a few more biographies of notable women to Wikipedia as a way to improve that bias, as well as increase the diversity of people who edit Wikipedia.” This event is part of a larger movement called WikiProject Women in Red, which is advocating for the addition of more content about women on Wikipedia.

Despite more recognition for women’s contributions to science, there are still legitimate concerns about gender equal representation and current examples of women’s research going unnoticed and undervalued.  Articles such as “10 Women in Science and Tech Who Should Be Household Names,” raise online awareness of the prevalence of the gender gap in STEM.

In the book “Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men” (2019) by Caroline Criado Perez, Perez addresses how many women have been innovators in STEM research but have not been given the credit for their discoveries.  When looking back at history, it is not uncommon to see examples of women’s discoveries being attributed to men.  One example is Jocelyn Bell Burnell who discovered Neuron stars (pulsars) and helped build the Interplanetary Scintillation Array.  Bell Burnell’s male advisor and his partner (also male) took credit, receiving a Nobel Prize in Physics (1974).  However, Bell Burnell’s story continues, and her dedication to the field of Physics was officially recognized in 2018 when she received a $3M Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics.  Donna Strickland is another example of females in Physics; in 2018 she was the first female in over 55 years to win the Nobel Prize in Physics for her work on laser physics.  These women earned some of the highest awards for STEM research and deserve to be honored and recognized for their achievements.

Recently, AU’s Faculty of Business has also been challenging negative gender stereotypes by putting the spotlight on female entrepreneurs and experts in STEM research.  One AU alumni, Dr. Stefanie Ruel, has been sharing the stories, experiences, and contributions of women in science and technology.  Uncovering STEM: Women’s contributions to Canada’s space industry discusses how women have a significant role in Canada’s space industry and how by engaging discussions about gender discrimination, we may begin to give both genders equal honor and representation in Canada.

AU’s Faculty of Business also features the work of Dr. Angela Workman-Stark, who looks at how we can create more inclusive workplaces.  Workman-Stark’s research analyzes bias, discrimination, and gender stereotyping in the workplace.  Neutrality in the workplace is questioned, saying that discrimination can be reflective of societal beliefs about gender roles but “[e}very person can challenge their preconceived notions and become more aware of internalized biases.”  In her book, Criado Perez (2019) asserts gender wage gaps and the demands of childbearing on women lead to persisting gender bias in the workplace.

In the United States, for instance, a person aspiring to become a tenured professor must earn tenure within 7 years of receiving their position or they will often be fired.  This becomes problematic for many women who want to have a both a family and a fulfilling career; it forces them to choose between increasing their scholarship or research and bearing children.  Criado Perez (2019) believes that for global gender equality in the workplace to take effect, there needs to be large scale social and policy changes to accommodate for the valuable role women play within society; this includes recognizing and valuing both their paid and unpaid work.

During one of my recent courses, the professor asked students to share who was the most influential person in their lives and had a significant impact on their decision to pursue post-secondary education.  Almost all the students answered saying their mother was their primary supporter, encouraging them to consider university studies.  I personally come from a family with strong female role models where the role of women in the household was valued and am regularly encouraged in my academic studies by women who excel in their careers.  However, I understand many women do not have the same supports as I did and feel their role is marginalized or diminished because of gender inequality.

Going forward I hope our society will do better, we can create more equitable work environments in Canada and better appreciate the contributions women have made to advance the fields of science and technology.