Of Myths and Truths: The Gender Gap in STEM

We explore the topic of gender diversity in STEM career sectors with the help of Grab Singapore’s Data Scientist, Wenqing Chen.
Carmen Teh
Writer, gradsingapore

Picture a classroom filled with young girls and boys. Now, imagine a Math teacher who enjoys telling stories about the subject he teaches to pique his students’ interest. In all the teacher’s stories, however, the main characters always seem to be boys who use their naturally-superior mathematical skills to solve problems and save the day. The girls, on the other hand, are barely mentioned.

Does this scenario sound familiar to you?

In this day and age, especially in today’s #MeToo era, there is a growing acknowledgement on the issues of gender inequality and the underrepresentation of women in certain areas of work, including Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) sectors.

According to a study cited in a report by The Straits Time, 37 percent of 17-to 19-year-old female students in Singapore say that they may not pursue STEM jobs despite studying the relevant subjects, whereas more than half of the female students from 12 to 19 years old were simply not interested in STEM. Almost half of the study’s respondents also felt that there was a gender bias in STEM jobs, as they saw the STEM industry as a male-dominated one.

Breaking stereotypes

These findings may seem grim, but Wenqing Chen from Grab Singapore had positive things to say about her career in Data Science. Chen is perhaps the needle in a haystack who has chosen to pursue a career in Data Science despite knowing that it is a male-dominated industry.

The Data Science Lead did a double-degree in Computer Science and Economics, which gave her the solid foundation she needed for her current job of dealing with algorithm development. She then continued to pursue a PhD in Decision Sciences.

“Data scientists focus on practical solutions, not just the theories. This was something that interested me a lot,” Chen said.

“It’s amazing to be a data scientist. The satisfaction I get from being able to explore and apply the most advanced technologies to build practical solutions cannot be as easily achieved with other jobs.”

Although Chen is happy she found her calling in Data Science, she admitted that the career sector is, in fact, male-dominated.

“In my experience of over ten years working in the industry, I’ve seen quite a few environments. It is true that there are more men than women in this field,” she said.

However, Chen highlighted that she has never encountered incidents of discrimination just because she is a woman. She also pointed out how their abilities are comparable to their male counterparts’.

“I have had the pleasure of working with many talented women. Female talents play the same important roles as the male talents do in the IT industry,” said Chen.

Myth: Women just aren’t good in STEM

If there’s anything we can take away from Chen’s experience and observations (especially about how women play equally important roles as men in her line of work), the gender gap is not an issue of ability.

Women are not biologically wired in a way that makes them ill-suited for STEM professions, and men are not gifted with inherent traits that make them better talents for the STEM industry. There are several proposed explanations for the gender gap. The ones we often hear about include learned stereotypes that men are better than women in STEM-related tasks, the lack of female role models in the industry and the lack of encouragement or opportunities for girls to receive practical STEM learning at a young age.

These explanations are generally accepted to be valid, but there is no evidence that suggests that there are actual differences between the two genders in terms of their abilities to excel in STEM. As with the case of Chen, her job as Data Science Lead demands incredibly technical skills and competency.

“A typical project at work requires me to recommend technical potential solutions to business needs, explore and predict data points, develop optimisation algorithms, simulate and test algorithms, work with engineering teams to concretise algorithms as well as experiment and re-optimise algorithms after concretisation,” Chen explained.

In fact, based on the data collected through a STEM Career Exploration course conducted by EVERFI, an American digital learning platform, it was found that the girls’ performance was just as impressive as the boys’. The students were assessed on their knowledge on topics, such as manufacturing, data literacy and design processes.

Truth: Gender diversity is important

So, what is the reason behind the gender gap in STEM careers? The answer to this question is complicated, to say the least. There are many social factors to be considered – and it’s difficult to put our finger on one single reason.

One thing that can be agreed on, however, is that gender diversity is important. In the case of scientific research, as an example, two key factors that were found to be pivotal to the performance of research teams are gender diversity and collective problem-solving.

Based on an experiment report on productive team mechanisms published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, gender plays an important role because women are identified to be more socially perceptive. It was also found that teams with more women achieve greater equality in participation, where there is parity in conversational turn-taking. The results of the study also revealed that neither all-men nor all- women teams were the most effective in problem-solving.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Chen was appointed to lead a team of talented data scientists at Grab. After all, female leaders are known to use their emotional sensitivity and communicative strengths to foster team spirit and promote the open exchange of ideas.

Of course, this may not a universal truth that applies to all cases. Everyone, regardless of gender, has their own unique talents that they can bring to the table.

However, the STEM industry can leverage on the traits that women are socially expected to possess. Having women on board is crucial to reap the full rewards of having a diverse team with different perspectives and traits, and to compensate the traits men typically lack.

The way forward

Recognising the benefits and importance of gender diversity is always good start, but how do we walk the talk and actually level the gender playing field? For Chen, companies can encourage young women to join the industry by offering them opportunities from within.

“I believe it is necessary to bring and encourage more women to join the STEM fields,” Chen said.

“I think more internship opportunities could encourage female graduates to join the IT industry. After they see their ideas turn into real IT products that are benefiting other people, including their friends, family and themselves, they will love their job and the industry.”

However, there is more work to be done to cultivate the next generation of women in STEM. One solution could be to appeal directly to young girls by encouraging them to participate in STEM- related activities at school, such as learning how to code or joining math decathlons.

An early start may help put kids (boys and girls alike) at an equal playing field before they start getting exposed to gender stereotypes, and will prepare both girls and boys for jobs in the future.

The world is moving undeniably fast, and the way we work and the jobs we will do in the future are changing rapidly. The growing importance of STEM-related skills and its pervasiveness in other career sectors also mean that we cannot afford to have any less than our entire population of both men and women engaged and contributing.