If you’re starting conversations about the issues facing women in STEM, Elaine Burke wants to know how you are planning to end them.
Think of a mega-successful sci-tech CEO. Now think of an award-winning scientist. And now think of a pioneering inventor from history.
10 points to your house cup tally if you thought of a single woman in that exercise. Chances are, though, that you didn’t.
This is why continuously spotlighting women in STEM is both important and challenging. It’s very easy to rest on the defaults. When the archetypes of what I mentioned above are statistically dominated by male figures, you will more likely rely on those more plentiful references you know. Indeed, your first thought was probably about a white man based in the US because of the simple fact that the most prominent sci-tech CEOs in the media fit that mould. And I’m going to guess that many of you thought of Elon Musk. But that’s OK, because we can blame the media.
The media portrayal of sci-tech success is as skewed as the industry demographics themselves. This is why we at Silicon Republic make a pointed effort to showcase diverse voices across the science and technology spectrum. We’re not satisfied to rest on the defaults. We’re willing to make the effort.
When it comes to representation of women (which, it must be said, is just one of the diversity issues in STEM), our job of finding new voices becomes slightly easier once a year. Time and time again, as 8 March approaches, the women in STEM pitches start to come out of the woodwork in time for International Women’s Day.
Women in AI, women in cybersecurity, women in STEM leadership. Our inbox is suddenly flush with eager emails from press representatives with suggestions for areas in which we particularly struggle to find women’s voices to contribute. Not only do they have women in STEM, but they are willing to talk.
The comments pitched around this time, however, are from women in STEM talking about being women in STEM. This is a fine and worthy discussion point but, to be quite honest, it’s overplayed to the point of being irritating. Especially at this time of year.
Year-round, we’re looking for women in STEM to do the same interviews we ask the men in STEM to do. We want their comments on the industry, their work. We might ask pertinent questions about their personal experience on this career journey, but we know that’s not all they have to offer.
‘The constant recommendation that we can bridge the gender gap with more role models feels like a sticky plaster on a festering wound’
This is what frustrates me so much about the annual International Women’s Day media pitches. They relegate women’s voices to an annual outing where they are invited to the table, but only if they sing that one-note song about being women in STEM. And they will especially be invited back next year if that bland ballad ends on a hopeful note. ‘Yes, being a woman in STEM is tough, it’s isolating, it has insidious pitfalls to navigate, but here I am with my moment in the spotlight. I’m here, so it can’t be all that bad. Can it?’
Well, it can, actually. As soon as you begin to interrogate why, the other 364 days of the year, you can often struggle to get women to agree to interviews and profiles in the media, a much more mournful tune emerges. Often, women in STEM who put themselves in the public eye suffer unfair critique or, at worst, outright abuse from internet commenters. How you look in a photograph or how you sound in an interview can provide as much for the audience to dissect as the actual words you say. It’s an unnerving prospect and I don’t blame those women who prefer to just get on with their work in peace.
It’s this broader understanding of the issue that makes the constant recommendation that we can bridge the gender gap with more role models feel like a sticky plaster on a festering wound. It ignores what is really being asked of the women who take up that role and what they may have to endure for the cause. This isn’t just a matter of being put on a pedestal and showered with glory. It’s putting yourself out there at risk of backlash for no other reason than you happen to be a woman.
‘Instead of thoughtlessly shunting women in STEM into the spotlight once a year, I’d like to know what’s being done to support them once they get there’
Taking on that burden would be exhausting for anyone. And for working women supporting families in particular, it might simply be one too many straws for their straining back. Women are typically overburdened with household management, childcare and elder care, and emotional labour both personally and professionally. And all of that while earning less than their male counterparts on average.
So instead of thoughtlessly shunting women in STEM into the spotlight once a year, I’d like to know what’s being done to support them once they get there. It’s a prevailing anecdote in these industries that some role models soon become exhausted by being trotted out like a show pony whenever a company wants to shout about its progressive diversity policies, only to find there is no support once the spotlight goes off.
Much of the women in STEM conversation is focused on building a diverse pipeline of talent, but let me tell you there are women out there who are loath to recommend this career path to others because of their treatment once they get here. While you’re out here ‘starting conversations’ about women in STEM in 2021, why not start with that?
Or you could have a hard conversation about workers’ rights that are stuck in a past where women were expected to mind the babies while men went to work. Maternity leave entitlement in Ireland is 26 weeks. Paternity leave is a measly two weeks. On the one hand, these measures acknowledge the time and attention needed for a newborn, and on the other, it delegates that duty almost entirely to mothers.
That pipeline of young women you’re inviting into STEM may well include some future mothers, or crucial caregivers in another fashion. Are you prepared to support them so that they don’t lose out to the well-documented motherhood penalty?
Better yet, have an honest conversation about salaries at your company and how women are faring compared to the men. That’s a conversation that might actually move the dial on the gender pay gap, rather than continuing to wait another few lifetimes for it to magically fix itself.
Essentially, if you’re going to shout-out women in STEM for International Women’s Day and start important conversations, you may want to have a plan for ending those conversations too. Stop resting on the defaults and start doing the work. Because each year it becomes more and more patronising to hear how seriously organisations take these issues when little to no steps are taken for change by the time the next 8 March rolls around. The only difference might be that you’re sending pitches with different women to our inbox, because you haven’t done the work to retain the ones you had.
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