A Chemical Imbalance: Gender equity in STEM education

A Chemical Imbalance is a documentary project about gender inequities in STEM and academia. It explores the reasons for gender disparities and the “leaky pipeline” – i.e., the gradual attrition of female scientists as their scientific careers progress. Today, only 27% of female STEM graduates in Scotland are working in the field for which they trained, compared to 52% of men.

The book project (which is downloadable) focuses initially on the experience of women at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where female medical students fought for acceptance in the late 1800s, and women undergraduates were only accepted in 1892. Several female scientists now hold faculty positions in the School of Chemistry; the school won an award in 2012 for promoting gender equity.

The short film project, by Siri Rødnes & Marie Lidén, complements the book by presenting interviews with part-time and full-time female scientists at the University of Edinburgh. The interviewees discuss their experiences in STEM academia, including some oft-cited challenges, like the need for childcare, that have traditionally affected women to a disproportionate degree. But the film makes clear that gender disparities are more complex than that, in that they persist even among childless women, and suggests that unconscious bias plays a role in perpetuating the problem.

I found it striking that the interviewees offered, and the film presented, a range of policy attitudes about STEM gender disparities. Some of the women stated unequivocally that their career has suffered as a result of gender inequities, yet demurred when asked if they were ‘feminists.’ The interviewees expressed varied levels of support for affirmative action in recruiting and retaining female STEM faculty (termed “positive discrimination” in the film). They did not hew, as I expected before watching, to a particular pre-approved policy platform; they simply expressed their varied life experiences and resulting attitudes in a direct and honest way.

Of course, such differences of opinion are part of the challenge. Even if we assume that STEM women universally want the same opportunities as men, there is no consensus on how to achieve that. Nor does the film posit a single policy solution. Instead, it advocates solidarity in recognizing, monitoring, and seeking to fix the issue. The four “action points” put forth by the website are:

Monitor our numbers
Mentor our people and make sure the best are applying Create a workplace that supports everyone and allows flexibility
Reclaim the meaning of feminism

The last point may be the most controversial — reclaim ‘feminism’ from what, exactly? — but as one of the interviewees states, “if we are unwilling to define ourselves as ‘feminists,’ we need to replace the word with something more palatable.” What term should be used — and whether ‘feminism’ is the right one — are certainly topics worthy of discussion.

I’ve embedded the film below, but if that doesn’t work, you can also view it here. If you agree that it is interesting/useful, please pass it on to your STEM colleagues for further discussion.

Final note: just as I got around to writing this post, the NYT released a long article by Jodi Kantor about recent institutional initiatives designed to address the leaky pipeline problem and other gender issues at Harvard Business School. The article suggests that these efforts were hardly universally appreciated by the affected HBS students; however, one of my friends, a new HBS graduate, thinks that at least some of them were helpful (to both men and women). The article goes on to suggest that at elite graduate schools like HBS, social and wealth differences are more divisive than gender differences — or at least exacerbate such differences. I agree, but I find the NYT article, and my own responses to it, far too complex to summarize here. Suffice it to say that this is not a problem limited to STEM education — and not one I know how to fix.

This entry was posted in Blogs and Blogging, Education, Film, Video & Music, Gender Issues, History of Science, Science, Science in culture & policy. Bookmark the permalink.