Where Are All The Women in Science? #TeamCLEO Investigates

Text Jess Nair | Images Freepik

Women make up half the world’s population and yet globally, it is estimated that only 30 per cent of researchers in science, technology and innovation are females. If you’re looking at Asia specifically, UNESCO states that out of 18 countries, only three had equal proportions of female to male researchers; Kazakhstan with 50 per cent, Thailand with 51 per cent and the Philippines with 52 per cent.

According to A Complex Formula: Girls And Women In Science, Technology, Engineering And Mathematics In Asia (UNESCO Bangkok’s 2015 report), although countries like Mongolia and South Korea have high enrolment levels in science in tertiary education, this unfortunately doesn’t translate into the number of women in STEM fields. For Singapore, although female students were found to perform better academically, only 30 per cent of researchers in STEM are women.

Based on data from LinkedIn, only 29 per cent of women are in STEM fields in Malaysia. Feon Ang, LinkedIn’s Vice-President of Asia Pacific’s Talent and Learning Solutions said while women form half the workforce and obtain more degrees as compared to men, STEM is still being dominated by men.

Higher Levels, Lesser Women

In fact, globally, the number of women in decision-making roles in the STEM field is dropping so steeply that the phenomenon even has an official term — the ’leaky career pipeline’. This refers specifically to the problem where women drop out of STEM at an alarmingly high rate early on in their career. Thus, directly causing the lack of women in higher levels.

Could this be attributed to the fact that women are more likely to give up their careers to make way for a multitude of reasons? Even in countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom where issues like gender pay gaps and the concept of gender equality somewhat fare better compared to their Asian counterparts, one in four women still leave the workforce post childbirth.

Even Emeritus Prof Datuk Dr Mazlan, who has been appointed as the Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs in Vienna, twice, faced the same issue. When she had to be away for longer periods of time, her mother would help with looking after her children while sometimes she would take them along when she had to travel for work.

Gender bias and parental support also directly influence a female’s decision to delve into STEM. Additional data from a 2016 MasterCard study also showed that one in five females said gender bias is one of the main reasons why they wouldn’t consider a career in STEM. A survey conducted by YouGov pointed out that one of the reasoning could start much earlier — 32 per cent of teachers believe that young girls’ lack of interest in STEM could be from the lack of parental support. This reasoning is further solidified by the MasterCard study that also stated 68 per cent of Asian girls aged 12 to 19 said their parents were the most influential in deciding to study STEM subjects and pursue a STEM career.

Hidden Figures?

Did you know that Katherine Johnson was a mathematician at NASA who made many of its early missions possible? This was in the 1950s and yet we only started to hear about her and her incredible achievements post the release of the movie Hidden Figures, starring Taraji P Henson. Perhaps that’s because us women don’t clamour for the spotlight or recognition? A Hewlett-Packard report corroborates this — women only apply for a promotion when they feel that they meet 100 per cent of the qualifications, whereas men? They apply even when they only meet 60 per cent.

“I never took any credit because we always worked as a team, it was never just one person,” Johnson admitted in an interview. “Your presence affects people. Get out from behind the shadows. Don’t be hidden,” said Poppy Northcutt — she was the first woman in NASA’s Mission Control room where she and her team were responsible for producing accurate trajectory for the Apollo 8 crew to land back on Earth safely after a mission to the moon.

Companies do perform significantly better with women involved — a study from Singapore also confirmed this. Fortune 500 companies with three or more women on board outperformed competitors with 66 per cent more return on capital investments and 42 per cent more on sales.

A Change of Mindset

Looking at Malaysia specifically, the Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik recently revealed that the number of students taking STEM subjects decreases every year. Reports show that 2018 saw 44% of Malaysian students whereas 2012 saw 48%. While the drop might not look significant, it is an approximate reduction of 6,000 students each year. 2020 is fast approaching and it still feels like we’re still ways away from truly providing women with the support and encouragement that serve as the crucial base needed for them to pursue their career goals.

In a Monash University article, Dr Rebecca Cooper, a Senior Lecturer in Science Education encouraged a reshaping of what STEM is for girls — and that includes teachers and families fostering positive attitudes of those subjects. One way is to normalise the conversation about science, technology, engineering and math. And sometimes, just finding the regular role model helps too — “It’s hard to be what you can’t see, [so] find people who are working in that area, especially women, who can share their story and bring it life,” she says. Hopefully in a share-heavy world, social media can also be a platform to encourage girls to pursue science, and beyond.

*This article was originally published in CLEO Malaysia Sept/Oct 2019 print issue.