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Hidden figures

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar (The Philippine Star) - April 13, 2021 - 12:00am

From birth, many of us are surrounded by the expectations of others. At times, the expectations are set even before a child is born, especially once its gender is known. Blue rooms and dinosaur prints await the boys, while pink wallpaper and stuffed toys are set to welcome the girls.

Stereotypes, both conscious and unconscious, are one of the chief sources of inequality in the world, and they are particularly insidious when it comes to creating and maintaining inequality between men and women. And while some stereotypes may be based on a sliver of truth that is taken out of context or ballooned out of proportion, others are simply out-and-out fabrications. Among the latter, one of the most ridiculous – and the most damaging – is the stereotype that women and girls are not suited to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

While we no longer live in an era where boys and girls receive completely different forms of education, the presence of this particular stereotype is indisputable. We see it the lack of women in STEM that are studied in schools, in the way STEM occupations are portrayed in media, in the vocal misogynistic campaigns that erupt in video game communities and in the gender ratio of those who choose STEM for their careers.

Globally, statistics from UNESCO show a stark gender gap in STEM vocations, with less than a third of girls choosing to take STEM courses like math and engineering, while those who do end up in STEM vocations tend to publish less and receive less pay.

Here in the Philippines, a 2019 paper from the Philippine Business Coalition for Women Empowerment (PBCWE) and the Philippine Women’s Economic Network (PhilWEN) indicates that while the gender gap is not as large as the worldwide average, there is a larger gap in some STEM occupations (such as engineering) rather than others, and the college enrollment for the year covered by the study showed a decline in STEM enrollment, particularly in the fields of engineering and information technology.

The great irony here is that without the contributions of women scientists, we would not have much of the modern technology that we enjoy today, much of which is owed to the advent of computers. With the way women have to struggle for equal treatment in jobs in the tech and computer industry, you wouldn’t know that programming/coding was dominated by women for a significant part of its history. Yet it’s true, and it all started with a woman: by all accounts, the first computer programmer was a woman, the brilliant Ada Lovelace. The programmers of the world’s first programmable, electronic, general-purpose digital computer during World War 2 was a team of six women: Frances “Betty” Snyder Holberton (who made one of the first pieces of software), Jean Jennings Bartik (who helped pioneer computer data storage), Kathleen “Kay” McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum and Frances Bilas Spence.  Grace Hopper, an admiral in the US Navy, created the first compiler, a program that translates English language instructions into the programming language of a computer. And these are just a handful of women in but one of the disciplines within STEM, computer science, and there are many more.

Yet in spite of their contributions, the names I just mentioned (with the possible exception of Lovelace) are likely to be unfamiliar to most readers. This is one reason why fewer women seek jobs in STEM industries – because the role models that we are provided, the paragons of science and math, the visionaries behind the technology that is now indispensable in our lives… they are presented as being predominantly men. Not because women have not contributed just as much – far from it, as the field of computer science will reveal.

The first step to addressing the gender gap in STEM careers is by showing girls it is possible to have those careers, that women can and have thrived in these fields and made discoveries and innovations that made a lasting difference in their disciplines.

Making STEM careers more visible and viable for women is the right thing to do from the perspective of fairness and equality. It’s no secret that many of the highest paying occupations are in the STEM field, and demand for these will only rise in the wake of the increasing reliance on technology brought about by the pandemic. Marginalizing women from these jobs directly impacts their quality of life and their financial independence. And it also hurts those industries themselves… diversity in the workforce has proven benefits to creativity, productivity and innovation. What STEM disciplines can create will only be better with input from the other half of the human race.

So, what can be done to bring more women into STEM? We must continue to fight against the stereotypes which would brand science or math, computers or engineering, as disciplines which women have no affinity for. We should have more girls experience the joys of tinkering, of creating with machines, of visualizing the world with numbers. We should provide more role models who are women, so that students – both boys and girls – have a better appreciation of the past, but also so they can look for mentors in the present.

There are many women, here and abroad, who are making great strides in STEM vocations, and many are only too happy to share their experiences with the next generation (one of the rising advocacy organizations focused on women in technology, WiTech, was founded in the Philippines, by Filipino girls). For those interested in computers, the 22nd of the month is Girls in ICT Day, and there will be many online events to celebrate.

We should also encourage schools and corporations to make STEM environments more gender neutral. We should push the government to continue to enact laws – such as the Expanded Maternity Leave Law – that remove the barriers that prevent women from having to choose between their careers and their families (a choice that men are hardly ever forced to make).

Changing the status quo of women in STEM will take the efforts of many people, and it will not happen overnight. But if you know a girl who has shown interest in computer games, or a young woman who is besotted with her phone… perhaps you can help them discover the women who helped make these things possible. And in doing so, you can broaden what is possible for them.

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