Over the last few days, a little video from a company called GoldieBlox has gone viral, with headlines such as: "This Awesome Ad, Set to the Beastie Boys, Is How to Get Girls to Become Engineers" (this particular headline via Slate). Watch the video if you haven't already: it's utterly charming and features a quite impressive Rube Goldberg machine.
I was recently confronted by a female engineer who thought it was wrong to emphasise unconscious bias against women in STEM so much. She felt that women found themselves in a situation where an over awareness of the potential bias they face actually increases their anxieties and negatively impacts their performance.
She is not wrong. It is a well-known fact (and well researched topic) that women who are aware that they are viewed as less able in STEM subjects perform under their ability in these subjects. So would it not be more effective to just not discuss it any more, abolish all initiatives aimed at women in STEM and continue to work hard until women represent 50% of all engineers?
I wish the answer could be that simple. If it were, why do we still have so few female engineers and why is the percentage of female graduates decreasing in many STEM subjects? Wishing women to be ignorant about the bias they face is not realistic unfortunately. Those talented women who became engineers or scientists only need to look around them to see that they are in the minority. Whether we like it or not, conscious or not, they will understand that they do not conform the norm.
They read the media, they see the headline articles proclaiming that new research in neuroscience has found that boys’ brains are more geared to mathematics, and girls’ brains to language and emotion. So more often than not, they know and feel that they do not belong, that they are an anomaly.
Our awareness of (unconscious) bias against women in STEM leads to stereotype threat, a phenomenon first described in a research paper by Steele & Aronson in 1995. The researchers found that performance can be harmed by the awareness that one’s behaviour might be viewed through the lens of stereotypes. Their study researched racial stereotyping, but research since has proven the existence of stereotype threat in many other areas, including women in maths and STEM subjects more generally. A number of other consequences have been linked to stereotype threat. As well as academic performance, participants in studies have been found to reduce their practice time for a task, have reduced sense of belonging to the stereotyped domain, and choose to no longer pursue the domain.
The danger is real. Where women feel that that they are biased against, they suffer from stereotype threat, thereby genuinely impacting their performance. In other words, the bias becomes reality.
A lot of research has been conducted to find ways to reduce stereotype threat. In their research conducted in 2005, Johns, Schmader & Martens found that women who learned about stereotype threat and how it can interfere with their performance did not perform worse. The effect of stereotype threat was mitigated by the very understanding of the concept; hence knowing is half the battle.
Other proven methods that mitigate the effect of stereotype threat include the development of a self that includes multiple areas, beyond gender. Self-affirmation, the explicit understanding of your skills, characteristics, values and roles has also proven to make a difference. In other words, if we help women to see themselves as unique individuals, who make up their own mind about their ability and values we can impact their performance.
All of this proves that we need to do more than change our recruitment practices to increase the number of women working in STEM. In engineering, 15% of all graduates are female, yet only 7% of all working engineers are female. Women engineers get less chances for promotion than their male peers, and are more likely to leave the profession to change careers. Stereotype threat continues to exist after the female engineer has been hired, and we need to continue focusing on removing its effect.
I believe strongly that we have to continue to educate female engineers and women working in other areas of STEM. They have to understand that
- there is no scientific proof for any perceived inferiority in maths, spatial awareness etc
- ability and intelligence are areas where individuals vary regardless of gender
- lots of people (men and women) unconsciously believe that women are inferior in STEM subjects
- women therefore underperform in STEM because of stereotype threat
- stereotype threat can be removed through education and a development of a strong sense of self
Image from Scientific American, the Need for Belonging in Math and Science, Scott Barry Kaufman, October 21, 2013
All other references and research papers available on request.
Below is the essay I submitted to the 30% as part of a scholarship application for an Executive MBA at Henley Business School. I was offered a 50% scholarship.
It is not a coincidence that the debate around gender balance has come up in recent times, as the disappointment of the first and second generation of women with equal opportunities in the workplace sets in. Women graduating in the 1980s and 1990s genuinely believed that they would have the same career opportunities as their male peers. We continued to believe this in the first years after graduation, as we started to climb the corporate ladder on the first steps of management.
Yet, all of sudden, all those years after graduation, we look around us and we notice that there are very few women left. Most have given up on the way, taken part time jobs that work around child care, been “lucky” to have a husband who can provide, or decided to start up their own business around the kitchen table.
We were naïve in our assumption that we would be treated equal, and are right to now reinvigorate the debate on gender equality. We often hear that the new generation of girls graduating are less feminist, have less aspirations, have given up on the vision of gender equality. I believe however that they are more realistic and are more aware of the persisting inequality in the higher echelons of corporations. They have a better chance to achieve equality if we give them the right tools.
The generation of women starting out in corporate life in the last 20 years were a little like the soldiers in the trenches in WW1. The soldiers were sent to attack the enemy with very little information about the position of the Germans, the location of the enemy trenches, the presence of barbed wire preventing access to the trenches and the danger of exposure in the open field. Yet they came out of the relative security of their own trenches in big numbers, scared but confident that their leaders would show them the way and help them to reach the other side. The result: a four year long war with hardly any territorial gains. We no longer fight wars that way. We extensively train our soldiers, prepare them for all possible scenarios and terrains, and give them access to specific tools suitable to their situation.
We can do the same with our young women starting out in the workplace today. They are less naïve, they understand that it will be difficult, and they are happy to listen to advice and learn from the mistakes of the generations who came before them.
A large body of research exists trying to understand the reasons why women struggle to make it to the top in their chosen career field. In a nutshell, the research can be divided in two groups. On the one hand we have the neuroscientists focusing on the differences in brain function between men and women. A prominent example is Professor Simon Baron Cohen from Cambridge University, who has come to the conclusion that “a brain type that leans towards strong systemising is more common in males”. His research has subsequently picked up by others, as is exemplified in the speech given by Larry Summers, former president of Harvard University a few years ago in which he states that “The under-representation of female scientists at elite universities may stem in part from innate differences between men and women”.
This research is also used as the basis for many popular science books and articles and has resulted in a large body of work with titles such as “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” or “Why Men Don’t Listen & Women Can’t Read Maps”.
Another group of scientists focuses on understanding the environmental factors that puts women at a disadvantage, the stereotype threat that has a real impact on a woman’s ability to perform and the unconscious bias women face at work.
This unconscious bias is the result of generations of inequality, fed by the attention given by the press and popular science books to the supposed hard wired differences between men and women, as illustrated above. Unconscious bias does not reflect our conscious or aware thinking, it is the stereotypical thinking that lingers in our brains and that we as people need in order to make quick decisions every day. Many people know the example used by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink. He compared the average height of the CEOs in the Fortune 500 with men in the general population and found that 58% of male CEOs were over 6’ tall versus 14.5% of men in the general population. I am fairly confident that no one rationally believes that tall men are better leaders, yet unconsciously, we still hang on to our stereotypical thinking from prehistoric times, where it was indeed advantageous to have a physically strong leader in order to survive as a group.
Because the bias is unconscious it is very difficult to address and understand its exact impact. We are dependant on experiments conducted in a controlled lab environment to appreciate the impact that unconscious bias has on women in real life. Women can e.g. be exposed to unconscious bias in the hiring process, performance reviews and during promotion discussions.
To make matters worse, women might even perform less because of their own unconscious bias. This phenomenon is known as stereotype threat. Research has shown that women and girls underperform when they believe bias is at play as this has an impact on their self confidence. As an example, researchers at the University of Leuven (Belgium) have shown that first year female engineering students have on average better secondary maths results (equivalent to A levels) and should therefore be expected to perform better. On average, they also studied harder than their male peers. Yet their confidence as expressed in surveys was substantially lower and they did not perform better at exams. In another experiment conducted in the US, students divided in two groups were given a math test. One group was told that some people perform better at maths than others; the control group was told that no gender differences have been found. Unsurprisingly, women in the second group performed substantially better than in the first group and outperformed their male peers.
The key to removing gender barriers and to ensure gender balance at all levels within an organisation is to remove unconscious bias and the impact of stereotype threat. In practice, this means that we need to create awareness with all stakeholders influencing hiring and promotion decisions, helping them understand and address their own unconscious bias. Gathering comparative data across decision makers and departments can easily highlight areas of concern. As an example, an organisation can compare the average score given to male employees in performance reviews with female employees, and gather the data per manager, department, and business unit.
Secondly, we need to remove unconscious bias and stereotype threat from all women in the workplace to increase their performance. Effective ways to achieve this can be exposure to successful senior role models, targeted mentoring and coaching to increase self confidence. Many organisations are reluctant to treat their women differently, and indeed many women are wary of being treated differently. Yet to allow more women to grow within their organisations and reach the upper echelons of management, treating women differently and formalising the support they receive could be the answer. So without advocating imposing quotas, I firmly believe that positive action will be part of the solution.
Looking at the website of Women in the City, an organisation that promotes women in financial professions, I was surprised to read about their latest venture, Project Diamond. In their own words, Project Diamond, launched in Google’s offices, is designed to explain the differences between male and female approaches to business. The handbook which they launched for the occasion explains “the science behind the theory of why the way male and female brains are wired makes for differences in behaviours (we’re just different)” (quote taken from the Women in the City website; emphasis added).
Whilst I can understand that it suits Women in the City to perpetuate the myth that men and women are wired differently, I am amazed that an organisation like Google supports this philosophy!
So I thought it would be useful to outline our philosophy and approach to women in the workplace and women in technical professions:
- We do not believe that women and men are fundamentally different in their brain. They are not “wired differently”, women are not by definition left-brain oriented, nor or men automatically right-brain oriented. We feel that such stereotypical thinking is not helpful, and damages women’s opportunities.
- We do however firmly believe that through generations of cultural stereotyping, both men and women tend to have an unconscious bias against women’s ability for STEM subjects, and against women in senior positions in the workplace. People can “suffer” from unconscious bias in various degrees, and in some cases not at all. Women themselves can make choices and judgements based on their own unconscious bias, which can lead to a lack of confidence in one’s own ability, a preference to leave the workplace and conform to the stereotypical role model, or in some cases even bullying against other women.
- We do believe that women can overcome their bias and become more confident in their own ability through coaching, mentoring and training. We also believe that women’s networks can lead to increased performance.
- Yet we don’t believe in segregation. We don’t believe that mentoring for women by women, conferences for women by women and the like are the solution to greater gender equality. We need to get the balance right between supporting women and educating men. The debate needs to be open to both genders.
- We do believe in choice. Not everyone wants to climb the corporate ladder; some men and women will genuinely prefer to work part time, not at all, or in roles below their ability. We do believe though that if given real choice, more women would take the chance to develop fulfilling careers.
- We do not like linking the debate about women in the workplace to flexible work, life/work balance etc. We believe that the debate around a more flexible approach to working hours is for everyone, men and women alike. When we live in a truly equal society every household should be able to make their own individual choices about career, working hours and balance. In some instances men will work flexible hours, sometimes women, often both. We need to promote a culture which supports choice regardless of gender, or we will continue to be stereotyped.
I don’t expect everyone to agree with our approach to gender equality. We challenge our own thinking constantly and would love you do to the same!
I recently ran a peer coaching session with a number of female engineers about difficult conversations. The purpose of the session was to share ideas on how to tackle these conversations. We started talking about salary negotiations, which according to many of the women present, is one of the most difficult conversations to have.
Most of the women in the session hadn’t had a salary conversation in many years, mainly because remuneration no longer forms part of the annual appraisal in many organisations. Why is it so difficult to ask for a salary increase? A conversation about this can be difficult because it touches our identity as a competent person. At work, most of us like to believe we are competent. A conversation about your salary is ultimately a conversation about your professional worth. Your manager could decline, which could mean that you are not competent enough to deserve a pay increase.
It could help to consider yourself a business. You are an enterprise, negotiating the value of a project with another company. By rationalising the situation, you can remove the emotions, including your sense of competency, from the conversation.
Remember too, not asking means not getting. Rarely will employers spontaneously offer a salary increase these days. I wonder if some of the gender pay gap is due to women not asking quite as often as men. You owe it to yourself to regularly assess your market value. If you are not certain whether you deserve a pay increase, speak to people outside your company and compare the market. A recruiter or headhunter can help. They usually have a very good idea of your market value.
When asking for a pay increase, come prepared. List your achievements over the last period, and explain why that deserves a higher salary. This is not bragging, as one of the women in the session pointed out. Especially in large organisations, you have to be your own sponsor. If you don’t publicise your own achievements, they might get lost. Don’t threaten that you will leave if you don’t receive the pay increase. No one likes to be blackmailed. Emphasize the positive aspects of your company instead. Highlight that you really love your work and the organisation, and that you can continue to add value. The message will be just as clear.
I encourage all women engineers to discuss their salary annually. That doesn’t mean you’ll get an increase every year, but at least you will be much closer to your real market value. Because you are worth it…
Six years ago, Wimbledon, as the last of the Grand Slam tournaments, granted equal pay to women players. A little late, perhaps, but with that decision Wimbledon finally entered the 21st Century where men and women are equal.
And yet, there are still some commentators who question the rightness of that decision. They ignore the fact that prize money covers a player’s expenses. Women pay the same for their coaches and support network, they train just as hard and the materials are just as expensive, hotels are not cheaper for the female sex…
Instead, they highlight the fact that women only play the best of three sets, versus five sets for the men. Women work less hard for the money, and should therefore earn less. Women players do not choose to play fewer sets. A lot of players have publicly spoken out that they are ready to play five sets. I am not an expert on women’s physiology, but I doubt that women would fatally injure themselves or jeopardise their health if they were to play five sets. It has been done before, and they all survived!
The implication however is clear: women are frail, weaker, physically not the equal of men, not as impressive as athletes and should be protected. A very Victorian concept, yet one that stubbornly survives in society. How often do we question the fact that women have access to fewer physical opportunities than men? As an example, Jessica Ennis had to compete in the heptathlon during the Olympics, with men competing in the decathlon.
These imposed sporting limitations affect our perception of women in society. Yes, we are equal in principle, sure, but women should not be doing heavy physical work. They probably should not be working on a construction site with a hard hat and boots, or be employed on a rig, on a submarine… We are not strong enough, we need protection, we are frail, and besides, dare we mention it, hard physical work is not very feminine.
Wimbledon remains committed to its Victorian ideals by repeatedly speaking out against “grunting” in women’s tennis. There has even been talk of forbidding it altogether by using “gruntometers” to measure women players’ noise levels. The official line is that it distracts the opponent. In an article in the Telegraph a few days ago, Pippa Middleton, that symbol of women’s equality, said that she prefers men’s tennis at Wimbledon because she finds the grunting too distracting and annoying. Shockingly, men grunt too. Jimmy Connors was the first player to grunt, and has been credited with inventing it. Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic and others are all noisy players. But we never complain about them. Instead, we focus on women’s grunting. Do we find it distracting because it is not ladylike, not feminine?
Maybe mixed doubles could be the green shoot of equality at Wimbledon. Move the mixed doubles to Centre court, let each play to her or his strengths, complementing a teammate’s abilities. Not a bad model for the workplace, either, come to think of it.
Following on from our last blog on unconscious bias, many women (not just engineers) have emailed us asking for advice. If we can’t control the unconscious bias that we face in the recruitment process or even in the daily workplace, what do we do? Do we just work harder, change our attitudes and behaviours to ensure that we get noticed, or just accept what we can’t change?
A lot of popular self help books focus on the mantras “change what you can, accept what you can’t” and “You can only change yourself, not others”. When your career is at stake, I would suggest that is pretty bad advice!
Whilst I understand that it is difficult to change others, you can certainly influence their thoughts and therefore their behaviours.
So in a nutshell: Pre-empt the bias that you face, anticipate it, and address it openly without aggression! There are many instances in the recruitment process and beyond in the workplace where people will be making assumptions about you based on your gender. You can anticipate these assumptions and address them.
Here are some examples:
1. Applying for a role
Suppose you apply for a role that suits your skillset and experience but that is likely to attract a lot of applications. What will the process look like? There will be a recruiter sifting through a big pile of applications to generate a longlist of candidates. That initial sifting is not as scientific and objective as we like to think. Ultimately, a person with limited time has to find the candidates that are most likely to get the job. Bias will almost certainly be at play.
If you want to stand out in the process and ensure that you get through to the next phase, follow up your application with a phone call, or an excellent cover letter that gets their attention (and doesn’t reveal your name, and therefore gender until the end of the letter!). Remember, unconscious bias is not a malicious act of discrimination, it is the bucket of stereotypical thoughts that we have been fed throughout our lives and that linger in our brains. Recruiters will have a picture in their head of the ideal candidate, and in most cases (unless you apply for a role as secretary, teacher or nurse), that image will not be female.
2. Interviewing for a role
Every interviewer knows that they are not allowed to ask the “child-related” questions, yet every hiring manager (male or female), really wants to know the answer to these questions.
This is the internal conversation happening in their head whilst they are talking to you: “Do you have children? …Will you want to have children? …When? …Will you return to work once you have children? … Can I really afford to hire you if you might have children one day and not come back? … I probably shouldn’t, too risky! “
Address them yourself. Why not? Even if you are not entirely sure, there is nothing wrong with answering what is true for you at that very moment. If at that moment in time you genuinely have no plans to start a family any time soon, say so! If at that moment in time you are pregnant, but feel that your career is very important to you and know that you will return to work after 3 or 4 months, say so!
I can almost visibly hear our readers sigh…
Yet consider this: Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, was pregnant when she got the job at Yahoo. I am fairly certain she shared that news and her plans on how she would combine her job as CEO with being a mother. In her case, that meant installing a nursery (at her own expense) next to her office, which off course I realise is not a realistic options for most of us. However, many women do return to work and continue to have successful careers. We do have options, and can combine work with a family as long as we don’t rule ourselves out too quickly.
This leads me to my last example:
3. How to share the news of your pregnancy
Here is where the bias really hits you. Your boss will be thinking:
“Great, I guess I have to congratulate her! When is it due? Is she feeling healthy, will she start missing work, coming late… How long will she be off?… Oh yes, I can’t ask that… better start thinking about replacement… Who else can do her job?”
You might be thinking:
“I hope I am not going to miss that promotion now. I’m feeling really good and still have lots of energy. Besides, once the commute gets too much I could take the train an hour later and stay longer. The baby is due in June, and I’ll take 4 months off. I’ll be back in October when things are really busy.”
SAY IT! You will not even be considered for a promotion, pay increase or anything anymore if you don’t proactively share your thoughts on the impact of your pregnancy on your work. And that doesn’t have to mean pretending the pregnancy doesn’t impact you and you’ll go on as usual, just to share realistically how you will handle the likely impact on your work.
Many women might not agree with my ideas. At the end of the day, we had to fight for the right to not have to disclose our personal circumstances in an interview, or in the workplace. I just believe that in this case, more disclosure might benefit us!
My business partner and I started Sagent Recruitment a few months ago with a view to promote strong values in engineering recruitment. After many years managing recruitment businesses, we found it refreshing going back to the desk, dealing with clients and candidates on a daily basis whilst working assignments.
Whilst somethings have changed since we last worked as consultants, recruitment is still a people business, where building strong relationships with both clients and candidates will help you become successful. What has changed is the impact of technology on the daily life of a recruiter. Technology has crept in at every level of the process, making recruitment more process-driven in a drive for increased efficiency. Counterintuitively, I argue that the increased use of technology has also made our industry more prone to bias.
How is that possible? Surely, a solid, technology-driven process increases objectivity and ensures that human bias is not taken into account in the selection process. Whilst I haven’t conducted any statistically valid analysis on this issue (although it would certainly be very interesting), I would like to share my experience based findings with you.
Many large organisations post their roles via a portal to their preferred recruitment partners, eliminating the need for multiple conversations with different agencies. The agencies will use the job description given by the customer to advertise the vacancy themselves. A lot of recruitment these days is exactly that: posting vacancies on job boards and portals, and waiting for responses to come back.
This leads me to my first finding: women don’t respond as readily to job advertisements as men. That doesn’t mean however that they are not looking for new roles. When moving away from the reactive use of job boards, and using different methods such as proactively networking amongst engineers in specific areas, we find the number of relevant women for a role is much closer to the industry percentage of women in the industry.
Through our work targeting women’s engineering networks and actively promoting the women’s cause to our clients and candidates, we can usually produce a shortlist with a much greater number of women than the industry average. So we infer that women are looking for career opportunities to the same extent as men — they just don’t respond to the ads in the same numbers.
Why is that? From my conversations with women, and reading the relevant research, I believe that the job descriptions and advertisements are written with the incumbent in mind, and use a language that doesn’t appeal to women. Many advertisements aimed at engineers are clearly (albeit unconsciously) written with men in mind, and whilst a female engineer might objectively have the necessary skill set to apply, she might very well feel that the company advertising is not the right environment for her. The language used might be overly masculine, and therefore suggest an environment aimed at men. Research also suggests that women tend to apply only for a role when they feel that they have all the necessary skills required in the job advertisement, further decreasing the chances of female response to the advertisement.
My second finding is more worrying, however. We all have unconscious bias that we have to fight every day. When talking to engineers or assessing profiles and CVs, we make judgements about people that might not be accurate. Our judgments are biased, and in engineering this often means gender bias. As founders of an organisation which prides itself in promoting the advancement of female engineers, we are very conscious of this bias and address it regularly within the company, conducting internal workshops to ensure that we have a thorough understanding of our own bias and assumptions.
The problem of unconscious bias is backed up by extensive research. Consider this experiment:
Researchers made up applications in which one of the two strongest candidates had better educational qualifications but less industry experience, while the other strong candidate had experience but a less impressive educational background. When the sex of the candidate wasn’t mentioned, 76% of male undergraduates who participated in the experiment strongly preferred the better educated candidate. Similarly, three quarters of participants preferred a better educated male candidate over a less educated female candidate with more industry experience. You would expect the participants to still favour the better educated candidate when the sexes are reversed. Yet they don’t! Only 43% of participants choose a female candidate with better education. Yet the participants were convinced they weren’t sexist. Instead, when asked to explain their choice, they changed the criteria and cited experience as more important when the better educated candidate was a man.
Real life is obviously not as simple as a laboratory controlled environment. But it is important that we are aware of our own often unconscious bias, and we should be able to address this problem with our customers to ensure that female candidates get the same opportunities as their male counterparts.
One of the most valuable lessons I have learned in the last few months is that recruiters have the power to address the gender imbalance in male dominated areas such as engineering, through changing their attraction methods on the one hand, and addressing their own and their customers’ gender bias on the other hand. It is not the quickest way to recruit candidates, but as an industry we should take our wider role in society seriously and be committed to this cause.
As a recruiter and headhunter, LinkedIn is a daily tool for me. And as recruiters we assume that everybody uses it the same way we do, and are always taken by surprise when we come across people with fewer than 10 connections, and no explanation of what they do or who they are.
LinkedIn is now the Number 1 tool recruiters (and many hiring managers) use to identify new talent, or to learn more about people they might be interested in hiring. You can influence your ability to be found by creating a good professional image and brand on LinkedIn.
Here are some simple ideas you can use to improve your LinkedIn profile:
1. Create a profile that reads like a professional CV. LinkedIn is a great tool to really showcase who you are and what you are all about. Use the summary to highlight your experience, expertise and interests. Many professionals use LinkedIn to create their professional brand, your employer will think this is normal (that is, not a job-search activity), and it will greatly improve your chances of being on the radar of headhunters and recruiters.
2. Make sure that the expertise you want to be recognised for, or the areas you want to work in, are in your profile so that they show up in keyword searches. As an example, if you are an engineer who really wants to work in healthcare, make sure that you mention that in your summary. This way, your profile will come up when a headhunter is looking to recruit engineers for a healthcare company.
3. Edit your public profile: if you are interested in a career move, ensure that your public profile is visible. LinkedIn gives you an option on what others can see when viewing your profile. You can choose to only show some basic information, which is fine if you value your privacy, yet you need to understand that this makes it harder for headhunters to find you. An experienced resourcer will find their way around this “obstacle”, but do you really want to create hurdles to be found if you want to consider a career move?
4. Use the “advice for contacting…” box to give your contact details if you wish to be approached. If you don’t actively list them here, only your connections can see your contact details. A headhunter or recruiter will have to connect with you through LinkedIn to get in touch. This is fine, but if you don’t check your LinkedIn inbox every day (and very few people do), you might miss out on interesting opportunities.
5. Join groups that are in your field of expertise. Many jobs get advertised or promoted through groups specifically aimed at certain professions; for example, we will use the groups for system engineers to make people aware that we are recruiting in that space. Being a member of profession-specific groups will also help you to be found by headhunters who specialise in that area, or hiring managers who are considering hiring for their teams. By contributing in the group, you can build up a reputation in your area of expertise, which will get you noticed by the hiring community.
Good luck building your professional profile and getting noticed. We will continue to share our tips with you.
Let’s start with an excursion in phrenology…
Phrenology was a (pseudo)science popular in the 19th century. Developed by the German physician Franz Joseph Gall, the central theme of the theory states that the different bumps on a person’s skull determines their personality. Gall developed his theory after examining thieves in prison and discovering that most of them had lumps above their ears. He claimed that a person’s moral and intellectual abilities were innate and could be determined by examining their skull. The theory led to widespread stereotyping and even formed the basis for some Nazi theories of race superiority.
With some exceptions, phrenology was widely discredited by the beginning of the 20th Century. New discoveries in science led to an increased understanding of the brain versus the shape of the skull. Research in neuroscience has also proven that intelligence is not just innate, but the brain continues to evolve throughout life.
At the beginning of the 21st century, we have an increasing body of research focusing on the innate differences between men and women. We regularly read articles in the press highlighting the scientific evidence for differences in personality traits between men and women, differences in how they view the world, process information etc. Our educators are told to understand the differences between girls and boys, so that they can focus their teaching appropriately on both genders.
I am not a scientist, and will not argue against the accuracy of all this research (although I would like to point out that many renowned scientists disagree). I do however wonder how helpful the research is to the advancement of women’s opportunities. If men and women believe that their differences in personality and learning are innate, we offer both genders an excuse to stick to the status quo. In an article I recently read, one researcher who claims that men and women are inherently different pointed out that government initiatives to attract more women into science and engineering might be pointless, as girls tend to choose careers and education that fits their personality. In other words, girls don’t have the personality for engineering? That sounds remarkably similar to the argument that boys with lumps above their ears will be thieves.
Whether the differences between men and women are innate, driven by differences in their brain function or driven by society and culture is irrelevant in how we deal with gender equality in the 21st century. Regardless of the underlying reasons, men and women are treated differently today, and behave differently. We hear plenty of anecdotal evidence from women who were pushed into arts subjects, even though they were interested in science. We read about women who drop their science subjects at university fearing they are not good enough, even though they have better grades than their male peers. We talk to lots of female engineers who are unsure about their career and future, and don’t feel at ease in the culture of their company. Sharing from my own experiences, I will never forget a tutorial I had during my master’s degree where I was singled out for not having read the materials on the reading list. One of my fellow students only half-jokingly pointed out: “it doesn’t matter my dear, in the end you’ll make a good housewife!”
Men and women alike, we are all stereotyping every day, and it is not helpful. We talk about the need to accommodate job sharing and part time working, to attract more women who want a better work-life balance, assuming men are not nurturing, and do not want to spend time with their family. There are lots of well-meant political initiatives that reinforce stereotypical thinking about women, and do nothing to advance equality in the workplace. In the Netherlands, the desire for part time working and increased family time is shared by both genders, and many men and women work four days per week, allowing each parent to spend a day with their children. Consequently, both men and women will combine their career with their important family life, and employers cannot willingly or unwillingly treat women less favourably on the assumption that they will need more time off. It is assumed that the desire to nurture one’s family life is gender-neutral. When developing plans to attract and retain more women in areas where they are traditionally underrepresented, like science and engineering, the best starting point is to forget everything we know about the genders, and ignore all assumptions in our head about behaviour and attitude. When recognising that people value family time and might prefer to pursue careers where a life-work balance is a real option, let’s focus on all individuals who value increased time off, rather than singling out women as a “target group”. When talking about changing company cultures to attract more women, let’s focus on a company culture that welcomes a more diverse group of people instead, men and women alike.
Above all, let’s always acknowledge that everyone is different. If we really want to help women feel more comfortable in their environment and advance in their chosen field, let’s start with their real personality rather than their assumed traits.