The statistics of STEM must change


female STEM science

Credit: Collections École Polytechnique / Jérémy Barande

Marianna Marcelline

Marianna Marcelline talks of her experience as a female computing science student

Curiosity was what pushed me to study computing science as one of my first year courses. Mainly, I wanted to know what it was like, and I wanted to know whether I was capable of doing it.

What I didn’t expect, however, was to realise that, by virtue of my gender, I was not just “someone” studying computing science – I was suddenly a woman studying computing science. The lack of female representation within the course essentially defined my experience of studying it.

The statistics that I had read about in newspaper articles became a reality for me; walking into lectures and labs, I became more aware than ever that I formed part of a minority. I was a woman taking a seat in lecture theatres, or in lab tutorials, where 80% of the other people beside me were men.

If the reason for this lack of female representation were simply that women aren’t good enough at technical subjects, maybe it could be brushed off and remain undiscussed and unchallenged. But as we all know, women are just as good as men when it comes to pursuing such a challenging degree. At the age of 16, girls in the UK continue to outperform boys across most STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. Therefore, logic stands that girls have the skills to continue with such subjects.

The issue is that a large portion of them simply don’t.

This is visible in the fact that after the age of 16, just 35% of girls choose maths, physics, computing or a technical vocational qualification compared to 94% of boys. When it comes to university, the problem only becomes worse. In 2016/17, the percentage of computing science graduates that were female stood at only 15%.

The implications of this in the world of work are serious. If women continue to make up less of the work force within the STEM field, the gender pay gap between men and women is likely to remain. This is mainly because STEM related jobs tend to be high-paying, and so if there aren’t enough women graduates to fill roles in this sector, the average female pay is likely to remain below that of their male counterpart.

But the problem of poor female representation within STEM at degree level also reinforces the stereotype that women do not belong in the field. As Helen Heggie, the director of STEMFirst, put it, “Children think STEM isn’t for girls because they don’t see girls doing it.”

Essentially, a Catch-22 situation is created. Too few women in the field results in other women thinking they may not fit in. As a consequence, too few women actually end up entering the field. But it’s not just about how women perceive what it would be like to enter such a male-dominated area of study or work – it’s also about how women experience it when they are part of it.

I have been lucky in that I have made some great friends from studying computing science, but I can understand how some women can feel isolated, because this has been how I have felt at times. The igniter of this is largely self-doubt – something that women have been found to be more likely to do. When this self-doubt is met with a classroom filled with men that refuse to give off even the slightest hint that they may be struggling with their studies, it can feel very isolating indeed. It’s a culture where men feel the need to show off how well they are doing in their studies, or refuse to admit when it isn’t going well, so as not to upset their fragile egos. It leaves those who feel inadequate with their studies even more inadequate.

Of course, this impacts both males and females, but the inherent questioning and self-doubt that women are likely to inflict upon themselves leaves them particularly vulnerable to not enjoying the male-dominated environment that STEM subjects are known for having. Essentially, the culture can become such that a woman may feel isolated in her struggle and therefore and feel like an outsider in that sense. The perception that women couldn’t and shouldn’t be in the STEM field can leave women worrying that if they do have an academic or career setback, then they are simply proving the naysayers right.

It is because of this that organisations such as Code First: Girls have been set up, as well as numerous companies hosting women-only conferences to encourage women into STEM-related careers. People have noticed that the lack of women in this field is serious, and that something needs to be done. I can only commend the work that organisations such as these are doing, and hope that they continue to do as much as possible, so that more women feel like they can pursue a STEM degree or career.

I will continue to be regarded as a woman that studies computing science for as long as it takes for the number of women taking up STEM subjects to increase. If we want classes and workplaces where women don’t feel defined by their gender, then the sooner the statistics change, the better.