Dissecting the science of equity, diversity and inclusion in STEM

In recent years, there has been a big push for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) initiatives in education. Reports and recommendations focusing on equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) have also gained popularity during this same period. However, few concrete measures have been created to unite STEM with EDI so that women and historically marginalized people can gain equal access to STEM. Educators have a responsibility to interrupt and interrogate existing paradigms and to help students (and ourselves) gain a deep understanding of equity, bias and systemic barriers to their (and our own) achievement. Conversely, we must also recognize our own privilege and how we may be unwittingly reinforcing the status quo.

My journey toward taking concrete action to redress the gender imbalance in STEM started in my own classroom. As a secondary biology and chemistry teacher, I often begin lessons with a discussion of interesting new scientific discoveries or socially topical issues. Students are eager to engage and offer their thoughts. However, when the issues being discussed are gender based, there tends to be push back, especially from male students. Their most common refrain was that Canada does not have gender equity issues. I found this dumbfounding, and I still do. The confidence and comfort with which our students champion this falsehood is staggering.

As an immigrant from a country that considers the rights of women to be half that of a man, I have a visceral gratitude for the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, even in a progressive country like Canada, we still have a long way to go to achieve the ideals of EDI. We cannot forget that women were not considered “persons” under Canadian law until 90 years ago, and much more recently for aboriginal or racialized women. It is foolish to think that the legacy of that misogyny is not resonating to this day.

As a scientist, studies and the statistics they generate allow me to make rational decisions. I wanted to dissect the science of EDI data in STEM so that I could better articulate the problem to my students. I wanted to show them why there is a problem and, hopefully, how we can work together to fix it. With this in mind, I created STEMneutral, a program designed to empower students (and educators) to neutralize the STEM playing field. By examining the science of EDI, gender-role stereotyping and learning assertiveness strategies, participants can gain tools that will give them a better chance to navigate the “leaky pipeline” of their STEM careers. The STEMneutral workshop begins by looking at where the current numbers lay.

Is STEM neutral?
The UNESCO Science Report—Towards 2030 shows that across all STEM disciplines, globally, women have achieved parity right up to the Masters level. However, there is a leaky pipeline beyond the Masters level, with females accounting for only 28 per cent of researchers. (These numbers can be misleading since in specific STEM subjects such as math, physics, engineering, or computer science, the numbers for Bachelor’s graduates are much lower, hovering around the 20 per cent mark.) If the STEM playing field were truly “neutral,” would the numbers of women involved in STEM drop as drastically post-Masters?

Why should we care?
Statistics show that having more advanced degrees is correlated with greater financial security. The higher the position—such as researcher, for example—the greater the voice and choice one has in determining the focus of one’s labour. Our society faces an array of challenging problems: global warming, food shortages, antibacterial-resistance. The list of significant concerns goes on and on. If we fail to have as many diverse perspectives identifying the key problems and simultaneously working to innovate unique solutions, we will all lose out.

What are the current trends?
The current focus has been on girls-only programs for robotics, coding and engineering to tackle the EDI problem in STEM. Underlying this approach is the theory that if we “engage” girls, they will rise up and balance the numbers. Although engagement is a relevant strategy, it merely perpetuates the notion that something is deficient in females, that the lack of parity is a direct result of a lack of interest from females. These band-aid solutions fail to address the true source of the imbalance. The EDI problem in STEM is due not to biological differences or a lack of interest from females, but rather to a system of socio-cultural practices that create biases against, and barriers to, women’s progress throughout their careers. Looking at the UNESCO leaky pipeline, we can see that women are already engaged, they are capable and they are pursuing STEM. However, barriers are clearly present which hinder their progress beyond the Masters level.

The systemic socio-cultural problem
Society inculcates in us gender-role stereotypes from within the womb. Implicit biases are imprinted onto our psyches from day one, which then work to motivate and shape each of us in ways that limit female and marginalized peoples’ advancement. Think about the types of toys marketed to boys versus girls, the colouring of and messaging on girls versus boys clothing, the types of “role models” portrayed in pop culture. The influence of culture and media leaves an indelible thumbprint on our brains.

This biased thumbprint is created as early as age six. One study showed that girls as young as six already have gendered beliefs about intelligence. At age five both girls and boys are equally likely to identify their own gender as being “really, really smart.” By age six there is a shift: gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge and girls are less likely to identify their own gender as being smart. Sadly, these gender stereotypes also influence children’s interests, as girls are also less likely to participate in activities said to be for “smart” children. Culture and media influence us all. We need to be conscious of how our implicit biases are formed and how they manipulate our perception of ourselves and others. Only then can we make real progress toward creating a neutral playing field for all students. [Bian et al. (Sept 2017). Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests. Science, 355(6323), 389-391.]

So, why is the STEM pipeline leaky?
The leaky STEM pipeline is a result of two broad categories of implicit bias converging to limit female progress: other people’s bias and our own bias.

Imagine for a moment that you have your Masters degree in a STEM field and are now interested in pursuing a PhD. You send out an email to prospective faculty requesting a meeting. Depending on the name you sign at the bottom of that email, your chances of securing a meeting differ greatly. Women and minorities are collectively ignored at 2.2 to 1.4 times the rate of white males, according to a study conducted involving 6,500 professors across the U.S. [Source: Milkman et al. (2015). What Happens Before? A Field Experiment Exploring How Pay and Representation Differentially Shape Bias on the Pathway Into Organizations. The Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(6):1678-712.]

Imagine further, that despite this barrier you were able to complete your PhD and would like to obtain a lab manager position at a university. You send out your well-crafted resume to prospective faculty. Again, depending on the name that appears on the resume, your chances are markedly varied. In one study, identical resumes were sent out to science faculties with randomly assigned either male or female names (John vs Jennifer). John was rated to be significantly more competent and hireable than the identical female applicant, Jennifer. Also, John was offered a higher starting salary. [Moss-Racusin et al. (2012). Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109 (41) 16474-16479.]

These are just two disheartening realities; the external biases that influence a person’s STEM career trajectory are numerous. Here are a few more: women’s publications are evaluated as less relevant even if they have the same impact factor. [Wenneras et al. (1997). Nepotism and Sexism in Peer-review. Science. Nature, 387, 341–343.] Female candidates face more interruptions in their job talks and often have less time to bring their talk to a compelling conclusion. [Blair-Loy et al. (2017). Gender in Engineering Departments: Are There Gender Differences in Interruptions of Academic Job Talks? Social Science, 6(1), 29.] Black women (76.9 per cent) were more likely than other women to report having to prove themselves over and over again. [Williams et al. (2014) Double Jeopardy: Gender Bias Against Women of Color in Science.]

In all of these studies, the gender of the faculty participants did not affect the response; i.e. female and male faculty are equally likely to exhibit bias against females. These implicit biases, which both women and men have, result in barriers for women and historically marginalized people in STEM. Therefore, both women and men need to be part of the solution. Acknowledgement of our privileges and allyship are key factors in bringing neutrality to STEM.

External forces are not the only factor at play in creating the leaky pipeline. We must consider internalized biases, as well. Female and historically marginalized people are affected by stereotype threat. A lifetime of exposure to society’s negative images of one’s own ability causes an individual to feel at risk of conforming to negative stereotypes. This reduces one’s performance in stressful situations because preoccupation with feeling of being at risk depletes one’s working memory. Studies show that when females and historically marginalized groups are administered high-stakes tests which are preceded by a pretest questionnaire asking them about their gender and race/ethnicity, their performance suffers in comparison to a second condition, where no such questionnaire appeared before the test.

These internalized biases against the self result in a significant confidence gap which is due not to authentic assessment of one’s ability, but rather to the fear of conforming to a negative stereotype. For example, an internal report from Hewlett Packard showed that women apply to jobs if they meet 100 per cent of the listing criteria, while men will apply even when they meet just 60 per cent of the qualifications. This confidence gap created by internalized bias can limit progress down the pipeline.

When the empirical evidence clearly illustrates and is showcased as to why the STEM pipeline is leaky, students (and teachers) have difficulty refuting the systemic socio-cultural barriers at the heart of the problem. On the other hand, an analysis of the science of EDI can be rather disheartening and immobilizing. There are a number of organizations and institutions pushing for systemic and cultural changes to improve EDI, but the result of their actions will necessarily be slow to materialize. Students need to understand that the biases and barriers in their path are not insurmountable, that they have some power over their circumstances. By offering some simple STEMneutrality tools that are easy to adopt, my intention is to foster their confidence so that they can better navigate their STEM career pathway.

STEMneutrality tools
As previously noted, stereotype threat creates internalized barriers to success for certain students. Educators can significantly decrease its impact by explicitly teaching students about it. For example, women’s math performance on tests improved significantly when teachers discussed the concept of stereotype threat with their students and offered simple reminders such as, “It’s important to keep in mind that if you are feeling anxious while taking this test, this anxiety could be the result of these negative stereotypes that are widely known in society and have nothing to do with your actual ability to do well on the test.’’ [Johns et. al. (2005). Knowing Is Half the Battle Teaching Stereotype Threat as a Means of Improving Women’s Math Performance. Psychological Science, 16(3):175-9.]

An additional way of combating stereotype threat is an immensely powerful tool called value affirmations. One study showed that a series of 15-minute value affirmation exercises not only closed the academic performance gaps for minority middle schoolers, but also improved post-secondary enrolment years later. Value affirmations have been used to improve students’ scores in physics and math, and even their performance in MBA programs. The process is simple. From a list of values (e.g. creativity, honesty, family, spirituality etc.), students select two or three that are most important to them, and then write a reflective piece about why, for them, these values are so critical. When one’s sense of self is threatened by negative stereotypes, value affirmations help boost identity by reaffirming individual self-worth. [Goyer, J.P. et al. (2017). Self-affirmation facilitates minority middle schoolers’ progress along college trajectories. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(29), 7594-7599.]

Another very simple, yet highly effective way to boost one’s confidence is to adopt a power pose before stressful situations such as a test or an interview. Studies show that spending just two minutes in a power position (stances that allow one to occupy more space, e.g. a Wonder Woman stance) increases testosterone levels while simultaneously decreasing levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Adopting a power pose allowed participants in one study to be viewed by interviewers as more hirable compared to those who adopted low power poses in which they make their bodies smaller and occupy less space. (Although the data has come into question recently, even if a placebo effect is in play, why not try it?). Being mindful of how much space we occupy when we are communicating with other people and how this impacts their perception of us can be a minor adjustment with major dividends in personal confidence. [Carney, D.R. et al. (2010). Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance. Psychological Science, 21(10) 1363–1368.]

When students are working in groups it is important for them to be aware of group dynamics which elevate some voices over others. Men interrupt more than women overall. Additionally men are almost three times as likely to interrupt women. By being mindful of their role in the group, they can either try to project their voice or check themselves and stop interrupting others. Another strategy focused on boosting voices that are usually suppressed comes from female staffers in the Obama administration. Because they wanted to change the unfair dynamics in meetings, they adopted a strategy they called “amplification”: when a woman makes a key point, other women repeat it, giving credit to its originator. This way men in the meeting are forced to acknowledge the source of the contribution and are unable to claim the idea as their own. When students are mindful of which voices need amplification, they can help bolster their own or check their own privilege.

I created STEMneutral to take concrete action that redresses the gender imbalance in STEM. Exposing the true source of the leaky STEM pipeline—a broad systemic socio-cultural problem and the subsequent need to equip students with simple confidence boosting tools—will allow students to understand the EDI problem in STEM and improve their chances of navigating the barriers they will invariably face. My hope is to share this information with other educators so that they too can have the challenging and sometimes uncomfortable conversations about EDI with their students (and colleagues). The more we expose the root causes of gender imbalance in STEM, the better we can neutralize the playing field for all students.

About Azadeh Shirzadi
Azadeh Shirzadi is a biology and chemistry teacher in District 12, Toronto, and the founder of STEMneutral.

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