‘Move beyond women in STEM focus’ to tackle gender inequality

THE research highlights that over-representation of women in some STEM fields and under-representation of men in care-oriented disciplines are often overlooked in gender equality debates

May 20, 2022
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Read the THE Unesco-IESALC report Gender Equality: How global universities are performing – part 2

Universities must move beyond simplistic targets to get more women in STEM subjects if they are to properly tackle gender inequality, experts have claimed, as a new Times Higher Education report highlights data on the topic.

Figures collected from more than 2,000 universities globally for the THE World University Rankings 2022 show that not all STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects suffer from female under-representation at the student level. In life sciences, 57 per cent of students are female, while physical sciences is moving closer to parity, with 45 per cent female students.

These figures are in stark contrast to the shares of women in computer science and engineering – 26 per cent and 27 per cent, respectively.

At the same time, male students are under-represented in many care-focused disciplines, such as psychology, education and clinical and health subjects, according to the report Gender Equality: How global universities are performing – part 2, published in partnership with the Unesco International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (IESALC).

THE Campus: 10 ways universities can tackle gender inequality

Experts said that the data show that discussions and actions on gender equality need to be more nuanced than simply recruiting more women into STEM subjects and that institutions must examine trends at a more granular discipline level than STEM versus humanities to ensure that gender equality measures are targeted appropriately.

“We’re understanding more and more that the term ‘STEM’ is a bit broad for understanding gender inequality. There’s an increasing awareness that in terms of gender equality, not all STEM fields are created equal,” said Katharina Block, assistant professor in social psychology at the University of Amsterdam, whose research focuses on gender segregation of labour markets.

“The theory is that STEM fields differ in how welcoming they are to women, in terms of the culture of the fields and how women feel [they are] treated.”

Dr Block said she was also concerned that “we’re putting all this effort and attention towards understanding why there are not that many women in STEM, but actually the under-representation of men in what we call care-oriented majors is often much larger”.

She suggested that this trend might not be studied to the same extent because care-oriented subjects tend to be seen as lower status.

“The perception is that STEM is high status, so obviously women should want [to study those subjects] and if they don’t, discrimination must be the only reason. Care-oriented careers are not as high-status, so the perception is the reason why men are not going into them is a lack of internal motivation,” she said, adding that there was a lack of recognition of how men’s lives and decisions were also shaped by sexist beliefs and traditional gender roles.

“It’s time for us to re-evaluate the status we’re giving careers like schoolteacher, nurse and social worker. Once we see the value in these more it is going to become easier to argue why we should include them in the conversation about gender equality.”

Eileen Drew, director of the Trinity Centre for Gender Equality and Leadership at Trinity College Dublin, said that “for far too long” gender equality work in higher education has been centred on “getting women in” and the idea that “the real deficits were only in STEM”.

She said this was starting to change, but the UK sector was still “only at the very early stages” of having more nuanced discussions about gender equality, while in some countries there has been little progress.

“For instance, countries like Poland and Bulgaria are more comfortable working with the woman problem rather than the gender problem, and they see the whole gender thing as something quite alien and not attractive,” she said.

“We have to recognise that the same reluctance to open up a subject to all genders is probably as strong in nursing as it is in physics.”


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