Cracking the code to science equality

Let’s face the facts. Science and, especially, technology, are still widely seen as “male” industries. Yes, you can argue that there are quite a few girls doing Bio Med or Physical Geography. Is it still true though in case of Engineering or Computer Sciences? Don’t take out the statistics. Consider who you think to be a typical BSc student, or, better yet, a typical engineer. See what I mean? I’m not talking about statistics, I’m talking about stereotypes.

While we might be slowly moving towards closing other aspects of gender inequality, girls are still expected to study Humanities, while boys do Science”

Now, stereotyping itself is not necessarily bad (just, you know, narrow-minded and oversimplified), but it may lead to prejudice. We seem to be moving between two extrema: the way we see females in the science and technology industries tends to be either oversexualized (“sexy young doctor”) or “unfeminine” (baggy clothes, no make-up, short hair- not that there is anything wrong with either of these). What’s worse, this extends into how we perceive them to do their jobs. Consider that: only slightly over 11% of software developers are women. A very interesting research conducted earlier this year on GitHub (“where people build software,” as their website proudly proclaims) has found that women are actually considered better coders. You probably think that’s amazing, it’s a breakthrough, we (well, Americans) are finally closing the gender gap! None of these things. Because the research has also found that women are considered to be better coders if they don’t disclose their gender.

It’s not always so obvious. Personally, I think that casual sexism is even worse, mostly because people don’t see anything wrong with it. For example, three weeks ago we’ve witnessed one of the biggest scientific milestones in recent decades (see the feature). It’s the kind of news that brings science to the front pages of news, or, at the very least, to the top-trending column on Facebook. One of the team members was a quantum astrophysicist Nergis Mavalvala. As one of the few women in physics, she attracted lots of media attention. Unfortunately, media largely didn’t care about the gender equality issues. Unlike the men from the team, who were described in terms of their scientific achievements, the scientific path of Professor Mavalvala was shown as a rags-to-riches immigrant story: from the “poor and oppressed” Pakistan to the “great and free” United States of America where she could pursue her scientific career as a free woman (note a huge dose of sarcasm here). However, that’s actually the part of the better press. The worse one couldn’t care less if Nergis Mavalvala is an Associate Department Head of Physics at MIT (you know, one of the leading technical universities in the world), because it seemed a whole lot more relevant that she is a lesbian. (The media student in me wants to note here that portraying her as a lesbian might be an attempt at defeminisation, to further the argument that no “real women” do science) Don’t get me wrong. It’s amazing that we see a queer woman of colour playing a major role in a scientific breakthrough. But if it is so surprising to us that she can be all four at the same time (queer, female, Pakistani, and a scientist), it means that there is something fundamentally wrong with our society.

I’d like to believe that we are a generation that will change that. That we will tell our children to do what they want to do, not what they are expected to do because of their gender. That we will let boys play with cooking sets and girls construct planes and ships out of Lego, without finger pointing. That when the next generation comes to study Media at Newcastle University, they won’t be asked to look around to understand gender performativity. Because while we might be slowly moving towards closing other aspects of gender inequality, girls are still expected to study Humanities, while boys do Science.

“If it is so surprising to us that she can be all four at the same time (queer, female, Pakistani, and a scientist), it means that there is something fundamentally wrong with our society”

I just hope that maybe one day, if we do have to judge, we’ll do it on the bases of job performance, or intellectual abilities, not gender. Because if we can’t accept women working in technology, how can we ever accept all the spectrum of gender identities?

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