Gender under a microscope

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Cape Town- 180801 Total shutdown march against woman abuse gender voilance Total Shutdown Campaign says South African women have very little to celebrate Women and gender non-conforming people marched countrywide against gender-based violence Picture:Ayanda Ndamane/ African News Agency (ANA)

As we celebrate International Women’s Day on Friday 8 March, it is crucial that we reflect on how important the breaking of stereotypes associated with Women In Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) is for encouraging young girls to choose STEM fields as a career of choice, and to increase representation especially in those sciences that remain vastly underrepresented and where a lack of diversity persists. It is clear that there is value in diversifying STEM fields and, yes, it matters. Different ideas breed a wide range of solutions and perspectives in our world. Also, as different people we view the world from different lenses which aids with innovation.

Even with a changing dynamic in women’s representation in science over the past 40 years in countries such as the US, certain fields still remain under-resourced. Biological sciences and physical science fields show distinctly different gender ratios.  Even in South Africa, female scientists seem to shy away from these fields, showing a clear bias towards biological sciences. In physical sciences and engineering, a lack of parity is clearly evident and women remain in the minority. Why should we be concerned about this? It is these very fields that are currently ‘shaping modern society and diversifying them can help ensure that innovations, designs, and technologies are appropriate for a broad population of people’, as Sapna Cheryan, Allison Master and Andrew Meltzoff remind us in their 2015 article in Frontiers in Psychology.  

Stereotypes are pervasive in our society. They are reinforced by narrow characterisation and portrayal of people in STEM fields (sometimes in the popular media, especially television and movies)  as ‘nerdy’, ‘not cool’, ‘unsociable’ and generally awkward mostly White males. One of my female colleagues even expressed that women scientists can reinforce stereotypes. She works in the area of marine biology where even what you wear is expected by other women marine biologists to fit a particular stereotype i.e. if you present yourself as being ‘too girly’ or feminine (‘wearing makeup and heels’), you will not be taken seriously. One would hope that such attitudes would certainly not prevail amongst scientists as training in science entrenches values of being able to evaluate and interpret evidence without bias or subjectivity. However, women are still objectified even within the scientific community.

South Africa remains a highly polarised society because of historical racial hierarchies that gave rise to distinctive social and cultural positions that perpetuate patriarchy and masculinity, creating a small pool of those that are able to enter into STEM fields to broaden diversity in areas that are underrepresented in STEM. Research has shown that to create an environment that is inclusive, there has to be a widespread acknowledgement and willingness to admit that bias does exist before true and real transformation can take place. Both men and women need to acknowledge this because in certain fields the attitude of ‘science-is-male’ is much stronger. For example, I have recently got to learn from a female postgraduate student that on our campus “chemical engineering is often perceived by other students as being more suitable for women, mechanical or mechatronics are perceived as suited for a ‘real man’.” One would hope that with so much government intervention and more science communication initiatives that hope to change perceptions about science in general, and active global drives to break stereotypes linked to STEM, that they would slowly become eroded. Such initiatives need further support.

It is clear that we need some changes in our schools because historically women scientists and their contributions have always been invisible. For example, one of my team members mentioned that she was never ever exposed to any Black scientists, let alone women scientists during high school. She associated science with ‘Newton and Einstein’. She further iterated that ‘with every scientific paper she reads, she automatically thinks that she is citing a man’. While listening to her, I was thinking, I do not necessarily want to take our conversation as far back to the very earliest times but Merit-Ptah of ancient Egypt practiced medicine at a time when women regularly became physicians and midwives and there is even acknowledgement of all-women medical schools existing. I would have thought that everyone would at least know about Marie Curie, the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize for her work in radiochemistry. As a plant biologist, the pioneer Barbara McClintock  also comes to mind for her work with transposable elements (jumping genes) in maize.

Perhaps we should focus on more inclusivity in the role models that we display to our youth, especially girls, a curriculum at school that is truly representative of the history of science, and making visible those that have been hidden in time is also desperately needed in countries such as South Africa. The implicit bias and unconscious patterns that discriminate between female and male scientists need to be addressed during youth when self-concepts are forming. This perhaps will help dispel the myth, especially in certain fields in science, that there is no place for ‘damsels in distress that are heavily batting their heavily mascara-ed eyelashes’. I say this because from what I understand from those that study gender-stereotypes in science: under-representation breeds more under-representation. All areas of science should be accessible to everyone because science is a community endeavour, a system that requires diversity to broaden perspectives and the lens through which we view the world.


Professor Nox Makunga is Associate Professor in the Department of Botany and Zoology at Stellenbosch University.