Where are our female engineers?

The article was published on The Nation’s website on 21 June 2015

STEM

Recently Pakistan Medical and Dental Council abolished the merit-based system for admissions in medical colleges. Instead, a gender-based quota was introduced to balance the number of male doctors against female doctors in Pakistan. Currently majority students in medical colleges are female. However, the situation is grim in the representation of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects.  Skills in STEM are the integral part of the economic well-being of any country. Advancement in science and technology are the center of wealth in today’s world.  For example Japan’s economy is heavily dependent on manufacturing and exporting the vehicles, computers, watches etc. Almost every year girls outshine boys in matriculation and intermediate examinations but we see them little in engineering universities. Most of these girls either want to be a doctor or a teacher.  There are few women at the undergraduate level in STEM subjects and even fewer at the top echelons. I have yet to see a woman chief engineer in Pakistan Railways or WAPDA.  Few reasons why women don’t opt for STEM subjects are:

·         Beliefs, Bias and Stereotypes:  Many a times I have heard this suggestion that “Never take tuition for mathematics from a woman” The reason behind such advice is the common bias we have against women in STEM. It is a general belief that women cannot be good with numbers. It’s not only at the university level that women are judged and thought to be less competent than man but they also have to encounter the same bias at the workplace. They have to work harder than their male counterparts to show their competence. Women are not particularly welcomed in engineering jobs as these jobs are considered “masculine”. It is therefore very difficult for a women to make a successful career due to unwelcoming behavior of her male colleagues.

Stereotypes about capability of woman in proving herself in STEM fields does exist. The most common stereotypes are: women are not as good as men in mathematics, and scientific work are done better by men and hence are not suited to women. Research has found that these negative stereotypes may affect the performance of a women and her future aspirations in STEM subjects through a phenomenon known as “stereotype threat”

According to a research carried out by Stanford University a “growth mindset” (which considers intelligence to be a changeable quality that can be enhanced by effort) which opposes the idea of “fixed mindset” (which deem intelligence as an inborn, uncontrollable trait) can result in greater perseverance against adversity and finally success in any field.  Usually, we have a fixed mindset about women that they cannot do exact calculations and measurements. Such mindset makes a women less confident about her mathematical skills and makes her belief that STEM subjects are not for her.

·         Popular Culture: Culture also plays a significant role in the decisions of women regarding their career. Girls grow up looking women in powerful positions as doctors, lawyers, journalists and politicians; making them their role model. Media also promotes stereotypes. While “Dexter” is a genius, his sister Dee Dee is always ruining his experiments. Children, particularly girls develop a belief that they cannot pursue a particular career because it’s not suitable for them

How to improve the number of women in STEM

As almost half of Pakistan’s population is women, we cannot afford to ignore them in STEM fields. It is important to educate and recruit women in STEM fields in order to be technologically advance.

·         It is important to fight the “fixed mindset” from early childhood. Children should be taught at home and at school that skills can be acquired through practice and hard work. Encourage them to take challenges and learn from the mistakes which are fundamental part of scientific contributions. Never ridicule them for their failed experiments.

·         Teachers at all levels should be made aware of this “stereotype threat” against women in STEM. They can play a part in encouraging the young girls to study STEM subjects and to make it their career.

·         The names of accomplished female scientists (similar to the compulsory topic of Muslim Scientists) and their achievements should be included in the curriculum so that young girls can make them their role model. Learning about successful female scientists and making them their role model will help girls in overcoming the stereotype threat.

·         Encourage children in school to develop cognitive and spatial skills. These skills help in getting success in the field of mathematics, engineering, economics and architecture

·         It is important to have different groups (professional or student) which provide a platform to women where they can discuss issues which are specifically women centered. IEEE Pakistan has opened up many Women In Engineering (WIE) student chapters which is a good sign. Such platforms help women in curbing the stereotype threat through seminars and workshops.

·         Teachers should be made aware of the “growth mindset” phenomenon. Even academics at the higher education level are often biased about women’s ability to reason and think which are the essentials of STEM fields. Professors often call their female students as “rattoo tota” who are good at memorizing stuff without understanding. This biased attitude towards women should immediately stop in our education sector.

Women play a vital role towards the economic progress. However, this is not possible unless they are thought to have equal intelligence as men. The biased attitude towards women is keeping them away from STEM fields.  The need of the hour is to educate and recruit women in STEM fields. Lesser women mean less economic progress as these days economic progress is directly proportional to technological advancement. Although the number of women studying STEM subjects have increased but it remains far lower than the women in medical science. Gender equality in STEM fields cannot be achieved overnight but we can at least try changing the stereotypes and the mindset which is keeping women away from the STEM fields.