Interviews

"It's essential that there are realistic female role models in science and technology, not just those that become household names"

 Foto: UOC

Foto: UOC

04/02/2020
Leyre Artiz
Milagros Sinz, principal investigator from the research group Gender and ICT: Researching Gender in the Network Society (GenTIC)

 

Milagros Sinz knows first-hand why young girls shy away from a career in science. That is why she strives to reduce the gender gap as principal investigator for the Gender and ICT: Researching Gender in the Network Society (GenTIC) research group at the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3). In order to achieve her goal, she believes it is essential we make female scientists more visible, recognize their talent and upturn the idea that certain professions are not "for girls". Since 11 February is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we sat down to talk with her about why recognizing female talent and women's contribution to difference fields of science and technology "is a matter of social justice".

 

A study published in the journal Science reveals that, at just 6 years old, girls consider themselves to be less intelligent that their male classmates. What's more, as they grow up they lose interest in scientific and technical subjects (a mere 7% of 15-year-old girls want to make a living from a technical profession, whilst this figure triples in boys). Do you think these data are somehow related? Is a career in science thought to be more difficult, which causes girls to lose interest?

 

From an early age, girls are taught that jobs associated with intellectual brilliance are reserved exclusively for men. They learn that being skilled in mathematics is an indispensable requirement for certain professions such as engineering or physics, and that only the brightest will make the cut for these positions. Given that these fields are dominated by men, young people end up believing the stereotype that men are superior in maths.

For the record, it's a complete fallacy that women are not attracted to science. There are countless female scientists. For instance, the scientific profession that attracts the most women is medicine, along with biology, chemistry and pharmacy. Medicine as a programme also has one of the highest cut-off marks in terms of university admission. Over the last few years, female enrolment in this degree has reached nearly 70%; more often than not this is because many girls who excel academically in science have been encouraged by their families and secondary school teachers to pursue an education in the field. Just like with other careers associated with health and life, medicine is congruous with the female gender's association with caring for others. This explains why many girls who are interested in science and technology end up choosing such a demanding vocation.

Although we've come a considerably long way, the belief still remains that the sciences are more difficult than the humanities. It seems the fact that primary and secondary school curriculums are based around languages and maths is somehow related to the stereotype than men are more competent in science-related subjects. The fact that girls tend to score higher grades than their male classmates in primary and secondary school is a strong indicator that they are more than bright enough to choose any academic path. Nonetheless, there is another matter lurking in the background: professions with a greater female presence are generally worse paid and in general have lower social prestige. Perhaps this explains why men and the work they do have traditionally been more highly valued.

How can we get more girls involved and foster female STEM talent?

Many girls possess the necessary talent and qualities to launch a successful career in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM), fields which have been traditionally dominated by men. However, these girls don't go for these roles due to the prejudice and stereotypes surrounding them, such as the idea that engineering isn't a place for girls or that they lack the mathematical or technical skills needed to work in STEM.

It's important to recognize women's abilities in scientific and technological subjects and fields. Also, given girls' tendency to underestimate their capability in these subjects (even when their grades are higher than those of their male classmates), it's equally as important to help girls value their skills realistically. In order to make that happen, their families and teachers have to work hard and avoid the tendency to underestimate girls' academic and professional achievements in these subjects. In other words, not only do we have to avoid associating girls' good academic results in science and technology with perseverance and effort, but we also have to avoid associating boys' good academic results with intellectual aptitude.

Do you think that initiatives such as Inspira STEAM, Nias STEAM and STEM Talent Girl, the majority of which are private, are achieving what they set out do to in terms of counterbalancing this reality?

These types of initiatives are necessary, but it's not enough to promote the changes we need to see. I feel like some are better designed than others in that they offer comprehensive intervention. It's essential that any initiative be well organized and designed in keeping with the different stages of a woman's lifelong journey. That's why it's so important that they evolve lineally over the course of girls' time in our education system. It's also critical that they can be sustained in the long term and that they allow for an accurate assessment of their impact.

It's also vital that all these initiatives complement each other and are well coordinated, because often huge efforts are made without having a solid underlying plan to refer to. I think that governments should design a strategic plan that coordinates several actions throughout the various stages of our education system, and if possible, over the course of women's professional careers.

As a matter of fact, the roles science and gender equality play are essential for meeting Agenda 2030's Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). So, should governments put more global measures in place to achieve these goals?

I'm 100% convinced that governments need to lead the change and drive whatever needs to be done to attain the desired results. The SDGs are an excellent reference point to inspire and design long-term plans that support equal opportunities for both men and women. But at the same time, whatever decisions the government makes must be suitably grounded in scientific evidence and trustworthy data that shine a light on the issue and guide the impact assessment for the different actions they take.

What are girls giving up with this overall rejection of STEM subjects? What might the consequences be?

The fact that girls shy away from courses and professions linked to certain STEM fields has significant consequences, as women are therefore not present for many of the scientific and technological creations and innovations that come to light. As a result, these creations and innovations do not correctly represent either their needs or their abilities. What's more, women are not represented in senior roles and are therefore not involved in the consequent decision-making associated with of technology design and production. In an advanced society such as our own, it doesn't make sense that caregiving roles are still associated with women and those linked to professional achievement, with men.

What role do social media, universities, publishers, toy brands, etc play, or what role should they play, in perpetuating or counteracting these stereotypes?

The media, advertising – generally speaking, as well as that specifically for toys, toys themselves and social media contribute to perpetuating traditional gender roles and stereotypes. We're offered TV programmes and series, films, toys and games, YouTube channels, different types of audiovisual resources and news on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook that reinforce these social conventions of femininity and masculinity, as well as the roles it is assumed men and women should have in our society.

Equally, universities could play a part in inverting the situation by means of several different mechanisms, such as the way they advertise their programmes of study and possible career destinations, the name of the courses and even the training programmes. There are technological universities, such as Eindhoven University of Technology (Netherlands), that have published teaching vacancies in several fields for which they will prioritize female candidates.

Likewise, by correctly designing teaching materials from a gender perspective to be used throughout the formal and informal education system would undoubtedly help make many women's contributions in different fields more visible. Although there are more women working in the humanities, just as with STEM subjects and programmes, teaching materials in areas with a high female presence such as languages and literature show very few examples of contributions from women.

Can anything be done to help from within the home?

Families, and parents in particular, need to be aware that this problem exists and should make an effort to encourage children, both boys and girls, to play with gender-neutral toys from an early age and expose them to play that helps develop different roles, not just those traditionally associated with their gender. It's also important that extracurricular and leisure activities (including sports) not reinforce sexist roles. We should be seeking training and information from specialists on how to educate children in terms of equal opportunities. Gender stereotypes and sexist prejudices are primarily more harmful to women, but there are also a lot of men who don't fit within these rigid canons. We have to teach all children to be critical and to react assertively and consciously if they see examples of sexism or sexist or discriminatory behaviour of any kind and in any situation.

Do you think it can help having examples of female scientists and women in tech to look up to?

We undoubtedly need examples of female scientists and technologists. But it's also important that these examples are also of "normal" women, not just those who have been very successful or achieved great things, which might set seemingly unattainable standards for "normal" girls. I think that, nowadays, being lucky enough to choose a career you like and that inspires you is already a huge achievement. Whether that career falls into the STEM field or not is not really what's important.

Does it help that it's celebrated on a day like 11 February?

It's so important we organize activities and actions such as those of 11 February, activities that help raise awareness in society, particularly among young people (both boys and girls). This also helps to make women who excel in science or technology due to their contributions as well as women who work, study or conduct research in STEM fields more visible. Essentially, we need examples of women who "get their hands dirty", with whom young people (not only girls) can identify and who can contribute to changing false notions about women not valuing or not being interested in science and technology.

So, we agree that there are fewer female scientists, but do you think their work is less visible?

Pretty much. Women's contribution to progress and their innovations in a host of disciplines have barely been recognized over the course of history. Sadly, science and technology are no exception to that rule. Lest we forget that, until recently, women had to take on male pseudonyms to be able to exercise their talent, or, alternatively, their husbands appropriated their patents because they couldn't list themselves as the authors or creators of the inventions they developed.

Do you think having a diverse range of profiles enriches science?

I don't like the word diverse; it has been wrongly interpreted and used incorrectly to promote gender equality policies. Women aren't a minority group; we represent just over half of the global population and we deserve to be given the same opportunities as men. In which case, I'd talk about a heterogeneity of profiles and people, which, without a doubt, enriches any group or social interaction; science being no exception.

In any case, do you think that, little by little, generation after generation, myths are being dispelled and more girls are dreaming of becoming scientists?

As I mentioned before, it's a misconception that women aren't attracted to science. Women are attracted to science, and scientific method is the common denominator that unites and integrates many disciplines. Science is not limited to fields of pure science or technology; it can also be found in the humanities, the social and legal sciences and the arts. There are many women working in these disciplines who are making great headway in different areas of society. Recognizing female talent and women's contributions in different scientific fields is a matter of social justice. Now we're seeing the acronym STEAM, which includes the letter a for arts, in an attempt to defend contributions from the humanities, the arts and the social sciences to technology design and production. These fields are indispensable today, where we have a need for interdisciplinary teams who ensure that technological creations, and the analysis of the data that these creations generate (also known as big data), follow ethical principles and do not play a hand in cultivating any kind of inequality.

Are we seeing differences from country to country? Are there more girls working in technology in Northern Europe, where we might think there is greater gender equality than in the south of the continent?

Interestingly enough, in the Nordic countries, where the most progress has been made in terms of equality policies, the number of women working in technology is no more than in Southern Europe. In fact, women's presence in engineering is slightly greater in Spain and Portugal than in the Nordic countries. This tells us that gender roles are still very much rooted in countries with more favourable equality policies, and it's a warning that we can't let our guard down and stop striving for equal opportunities between men and women in all walks of life.

What projects are you currently working on at GenTIC?

At the moment we're working on a few different research projects related to the lack of girls with a vocation for science and technology, but we're also looking at other issues such as how equality policies are assessed and promoted in higher education and science. We've just finished reviewing some research examining the challenges and opportunities that digitalization has brought women. Some of these projects have received European funding, while others are funded by Spain.  

For example, GESTEMI is a four-year RDI project funded by the Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities. We're looking into what's being done to promote scientific and technological careers among young people in secondary schools. For this, we've been analysing interventions to promote jobs in science from the past few years. We're also reproducing some interventions made in the United States in order to see how they might work over here. Additionally, among a number of other actions linked to this line of research, we are collaborating on a research project with the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) to analyse the impact that the scientific literacy programme "El CSIC en la escuela" (CISC in schools) has had on teachers and primary school pupils from a gender perspective.

Why did you choose to follow a career in research?

I've always loved reading and I was lucky enough to develop a strong curiosity for getting to the bottom of the many problems I have encountered over the years. After studying psychology in Salamanca, I took part in several research projects and experiments and began to appreciate what goes on behind the methodology used to conduct research. Similarly, some subjects such as social psychology sparked an interest in looking more closely at the psychosocial processes behind our behaviour. The master's degree I did when I finished my bachelor's degree led me to start a course on social psychology at the birthplace of this very discipline, Stanford University (California), which is where I did my final master's degree project. I had the chance to enrol for a doctoral degree, but I wasn't too keen on the idea of starting my professional career abroad and not being able to come back to Spain. I knew that universities here tend to be very wary of people who have trained overseas and I didn't much fancy taking that risk.

When I got back to Spain, I worked for a year in academia and then signed up at the National Distance Education University (UNED) to start a doctoral degree in social psychology, which I very much enjoyed doing. I had always been very intrigued by prejudice, stereotypes and discrimination from a gender perspective. My thesis supervisor, Mercedes Lpez-Sez, introduced me to research on how the gender gap affects students' choice of studies; I've been researching ever since.