Hardly a week goes by without there being an article in the newspapers on the need to encourage more women into STEM disciplines. The arguments seem to be threefold. Firstly, there are serious skills shortages in certain STEM disciplines, notably ICT, and in that context, the female population is an untapped ‘resource’. Secondly, all work places are thought to benefit from diversity, especially gender diversity. The thinking is that males and females bring different skills and attributes to the table and this inevitably leads to better outcomes for the company/organisation. Thirdly, girls and young women who deep down would like to study STEM subjects are being actively, and passively, discouraged from doing so by all sorts of social and cultural pressures.
Regards the first of these, I would suggest that the existence of a skills shortage is absolutely the worst reason why any school-leaver, male or female, should study a certain discipline. While being gainfully employed is generally a pre-requisite for good mental health, being gainfully employed in a job that you absolutely hate is not. And if you study a discipline purely because of the job opportunities it presents, then it is highly unlikely that you will end up in a career that you love or even like. Furthermore, the chance to pursue higher education tends to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and for a young person to view this precious period of their life as a chance to undergo training as opposed to education seems like an awful waste.
Regarding the second point about diversity in the workplace, the idea that workplaces benefit from gender diversity seems very plausible and it’s not something that a reasonable person would argue with. But it does seem to me to be somewhat inconsistent to argue that women, by virtue of their gender, have skills and attributes that men don’t have while at the same time not being willing to entertain the possibility that women, on average, are less interested than men in disciplines like maths, engineering, computing and physics. It strikes me that commentators go to extraordinary lengths to exclude this possibility when writing about the gender imbalance in these disciplines. The problem is that when you’re in a discipline for which you have a certain amount of passion, it is quite easy to presume that everyone is like you and it can be easy to convince yourself that external factors must be at play if your passion is not shared by others. But maybe it’s a lot simpler; maybe a lot of girls and young women just aren’t in to maths
Regarding the third point about social and cultural pressures, there is absolutely no doubt that these pressures do exist and they start from an early age. Anyone who wanders into Smyth’s toy stores knows that gender stereotyping is deeply ingrained in our culture. But if we want to tackle it, then we have to do so in a more holistic way and not just focus on the lack of women in some STEM fields. If we want to attract more young women into maths, engineering, ICT and physics, then it is a simple matter of logic that we need to attract more young men into a wide variety of female-dominated, lower-earning professions such as nursing, dietetics, physiotherapy, radiography, social work and primary school teaching. Good luck with that I say.