Is inequality holding back innovation in STEM?

In the domain of STEM, where the glass ceiling is still a reality, how can women become the drivers of success in A.I., natural sciences and medicine via gender-inclusive research?

Gender and STEM: An Overview

In recent years, the issue of gender bias and discrimination has been making headlines across front pages and TV screens globally. If societal and political movements have managed to shed light on the glaring controversies and problems in the world of cinema, business and politics, the science sector has remained somehow silently off the radar.

“Women in science, especially from the older generation, want to talk about their research, not about themselves per se. So this makes it in science more difficult to talk about the [gender] issue, because women are not very outspoken about it,” says Alexandra Palt, chief corporate responsibility officer and executive vice president of the Fondation L’Oréal, whose initiative For Women in Science, in partnership with Unesco, has been supporting women’s achievements in the field and advocating for closing the gender gap in STEM since 1998.

Academia in general is becoming a less male-dominated field, but it continues to work on a hierarchical system which can often reproduce or mimic gender biases in implicit and unconscious ways.

— Dr. Rachel Adams, researcher on gender and A.I. at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, University of London

While the proportion of women in science has been growing in past decades, progress has been happening at a snail’s pace, making the gender gap disparities in STEM as real as ever, with women still facing obstacles in accessing appropriate education programs, getting funding for new research or finding career growth opportunities. The figures speak for themselves and, interestingly, the gender gap grows with the level of seniority — if 49 percent of high school students are girls, less than 30 percent of senior researchers are women, while in the E.U. only 11 percent of senior academic roles in science are held by women. Ultimately, to date, just 3 percent of Nobel Prizes in science have been awarded to women.

Key Challenges for Gender Analysis

The main hurdles faced by women working in science echo those seen in other sectors: progressing to leadership roles, equal pay and inclusive working environments. But the gender issue in STEM goes even further, as the current gender gap might indeed be depriving the world of possible science advancements from the skills and intellectual perspectives of women, putting a brake on both the speed and quality of innovation.

As Palt explains, when it comes to science we need to address not just the moral and social issue of gender equality. It is also about achieving the best possible research and ensuring beneficial outcomes for everyone — man or woman — throughout the world.

“It’s very important that there’s diversity in science, but we have to go beyond that,” says Dr. Londa Schiebinger, echoing Palt. “We need to teach scientists the true effects of gender analysis so that they can create research that works for everyone,” adds the professor of history of science and director of Gendered Innovations at Stanford.

This is especially true in the fields of medicine and modern technology. Doing medical research based solely on men — unless it’s regarding a gender-specific condition — is misleading and could cost lives and money. As Schiebinger points out, in the late 1990s, 10 drugs were withdrawn from the U.S. market because of life-threatening health effects. Eight of them posed greater health risks for women than for men, which raises the controversial question: Do all drugs work equally on men and women, and do men get better medical treatment?

“Drugs metabolize differently in men and women,” says Schiebinger. “If you don’t realize that, you miss how drugs may be harmful to women because male has generally been our model for drug development.”

A notorious example is cardiovascular disease (CVD), which historically has been considered primarily a men’s condition, with key clinical trials conducted exclusively on men. As a result, a lot of women were mis- or undiagnosed, and therefore less likely to receive bypass surgery or other standard treatments. Only during the last two decades has the awareness of how CVD affects women differently from men been growing. Today, CVD remains the major cause of death in women, and the top cause of death for 43 percent of women in the E.U.

We need to teach scientists the true effects of gender analysis so that they can create research that works for everyone.

— Dr. Londa Schiebinger, professor of history of science and director of Gendered Innovations, Stanford

Another sector where unbalanced gender research might have a direct impact on scientific outcomes — and the way we function as a society going forward — is artificial intelligence. The tech sector, in which A.I. research falls, has been historically male-dominated when it comes to senior, decision-making positions, and also “in terms of the dominance of what can be understood to be a male way of thinking,” according to Dr. Rachel Adams, an expert in the interaction between gender and artificial intelligence at the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of London.

“One of my particular areas of research is the way in which A.I. virtual personal assistants are gendered female and the concerns this raises in terms of the way in which we see women’s roles in society,” she explains.

These gender stereotypes can be found in other mundane daily interactions. “For example, Google Translate defaults to the masculine pronoun because ‘he said’ is more commonly found on the web than ‘she said.’ This is where gender analysis kicks in,” says Schiebinger.

And the examples don’t stop there: In voice recognition and machine learning, male-centered R&D has led to A.I. applications’ systematically discriminating against or making biased decisions when it comes to anything from image database recognition and preselection of university candidates to bank loan applicants. And if those A.I. algorithms cannot fight against prejudices and with A.I. surely pervading our lives, it’s vital that A.I. research and innovations are programmed by men and women, argues Palt.

Looking Forward: How to Bridge the Gender Gap

Palt and her peers are unanimous that visibility, advocacy and tight women’s networks could help bridge the gender gap in science globally.

“The way of thinking is changing gradually — people understand that equal opportunity is very important,” says Dr. Maki Kawai, director general of the Institute for Molecular Science in Tokyo and 2019 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science laureate. However, she admits that her field is still overwhelmingly male-dominated: “In my institute, less than 10 percent of the principal researchers are women. In physics and engineering, female grad students in Japan are less than 20 percent.”

“We need to encourage girls to consider science as a career through better structured educational programs,” says Schiebinger, referencing the U.S.’s Harvey Mudd College, which reinvented its curriculum under its president Maria Klawe to be more directly focused and attractive to female students. The result? Today, more than half of its computer-science majors are women.

Such an approach — albeit still a rarity — can indeed boost the number of women entering science and academia. But what are the viable ways of enabling more women to progress to leadership roles and advancement in science to ultimately deliver meaningful change in the field?

The way of thinking is changing gradually — people understand that equal opportunity is very important.

— Dr. Maki Kawai, director general of the Institute for Molecular Science, Tokyo and 2019 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science laureate

Schiebinger’s three fixes have been widely explored by industry leaders for the past three decades: “Fix the numbers of women” by focusing on more organizations and government bodies helping increase the funding of women’s research, setting up mentor networks and teaching women leadership skills. “Fix the institutions” by promoting gender equality in careers and implementing reforms that overcome gender bias in hiring and promotion. And, finally, “fix the knowledge” by integrating sex and gender analysis into research. According to Schiebinger, this newest area of policy intervention is the most important for the future of science and innovation. The European Commission called for sex and gender analysis in public-funded research back in 2014, and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft in Germany will be announcing similar requirements later in 2019.

However, another omnipresent soft-power approach remains: strengthened networks of women in science that would encourage more women to pursue their scientific aspirations by sharing stories and expertise with younger generations. And this shouldn’t exclude men — quite the opposite. In 2018, the Fondation L’Oréal launched its Men for Women in Science initiative, which included the celebrated mathematician Cédric Villani and the geneticist Axel Kahn among the first 50 male scientists from France, Spain, Morocco and Japan to have pledged their support.

“Women who succeed are often criticized as being too much,” says Palt. “Something I want to teach these young women is to tell the difference between people who give you feedback to make you grow and people who give you feedback to drag you down, because of unconscious gender bias. Sharing this through mentorship, through networking, is extremely important. If I had known all this when I was 28, it would have saved me years of self-doubt and questioning.”

This article was originally written by 4 Women In Science and published by the New York Times.