Gender in Science and Technology: Why Everyone Has an Unconscious Gender Bias and How Awareness Is Key
On December 22nd, 2015, the General Assembly decided to establish an annual International Day to recognize the critical role women and girls play in science and technology. The International Day of Women and Girls in Science, celebrated annually on February 11th, is implemented by UNESCO and UN-Women, in collaboration with institutional and civil society partners that aim to promote women and girls in science. This day is an opportunity to promote full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls, because still, science is often considered a male-dominated field. In fact, according to United Nations data, less than 30% of scientific researchers worldwide are women.
Prof. Dr. Ruth Müller, Professor of Science and Technology Policy at the Munich Center for Technology in Society, a co-appointment with the TUM School of Management and the TUM School of Life Sciences, takes a closer look at gender and science in her research.
Prof. Müller explains there are two levels that need to be taken into consideration when talking about gender in science and technology. Firstly, it is about who works in science, and who produces new technology, about who works in certain fields, and who can follow certain career paths. Equally important, is the second, substantive level: How do our ideas of gender feed into the knowledge and technologies we produce? “With regard to both levels what we continue to struggle with in our society is what is called the Unconscious Gender Bias. These are certain ideas of what is typically female or male, of what habits and preferences are typical for women and men. However, these ideas are not value-neutral, even if they are subconscious. It’s not about a mere difference between A and B, but about a hierarchy of the two. In our society, we are still used to assigning more value to things we consider masculine than to things we define as feminine. Quite often, we classify what we understand as male as the norm, and what we consider female as a deviation from it,” explains Prof. Müller. And we experience this on a wide variety of levels. Prof. Müller explains that, for example, the symptoms that women often experience during a heart attack are quite different from the symptoms that many men describe. These are symptoms that are less known, which consequently means that, when women suffer from a heart attack, it is often not diagnosed right away, putting women’s lives at risk. And it’s not much different in technology development, in the automotive industry for example: “Few people are aware that most crash-test dummies used in automotive safety testing are modeled after a normative male body. So the center of gravity of these dummies, their weight distribution and height resemble that of a ‘normal’ man. This is disadvantageous and dangerous for women, as car safety is not optimized for their bodies, but also for other people who do not fit this ‘norm’.”
Consequently, when we think about the participation of women and people of diverse genders in science, we have to do it on two levels. Firstly, when it comes to research questions: “Who is being considered?” and, secondly, when it comes to who conducts scientific research. Problematic in that, of course, is our gender-biased standardization process. That is, the idea of “male” being “normal”. A well-known illustration of the issue is an experiment where children are asked to draw a scientist. Most children draw a white man. “We have norms in our heads that naturally shape who we expect to see in certain professions and who we trust to be good at those professions,” knows Prof. Müller.
Science is not exempt from this either: Qualities that are essential for scientific work are often attributed to men, rational and analytical thinking, for example. Stereotypes prevail, because they are constantly being reproduced, by the media, for example. This continuous framing of gender in our society results in an unconscious bias that influences our everyday behavior. So if this bias is subconscious, what can we do to free ourselves from such stereotypes? “The only way out of this is a process of continuous sensitization. We should not keep these things quiet. It’s a process that we have to work on continuously, and where counter-messaging in diverse formats is important. It’s a process of critical reflection,” explains Prof. Müller.
If we as a school want progress, we have to think about gender, in our communication as well as in our behavior. “The message is very important, but above all it must be lived,” advocates Prof. Müller. She mentions gender awareness trainings as a valuable means to raise awareness within the TUM School of Management. Prof. Müller is also in favor of anchoring questions about gender and diversity in the students’ curriculum in the future. Prof. Müller was already able to gain experiences with this early on in her career. “One of the first courses I taught in Vienna in the molecular biology curriculum was precisely within the field of gender and science. This was a compulsory course for the students. Many were skeptical in the beginning and did not understand why there was a need for a gender course in a molecular biology study program. Interesting enough, by the end of the semester, most of them had changed their minds because they understood that these questions have a lot to do with the knowledge we produce. At the beginning of the course, we laughed about stereotypical ideas of gender, e.g. in antiquity, until we arrived at recent times and realized that a lot of the ideas we operate with in science today are still quite stereotypical,” recalls Prof. Müller. A basic skill, then, regardless of the study program? “I would hope that someone going into the world with a university degree would have the basic skills to reflect on the topic of gender and diversity, understand what it actually means, and why it is an important dimension to take into account in science and technology and in our social lives,” says Prof. Müller.
When asked whether one can see an improvement over time, Prof. Müller answers cautiously: “We should not look at this as a linear process. The idea of continuous progress does not hold here. Studies have shown that when, for example, women’s rights were expanded, or women were represented in larger parts of society, this was often accompanied by a restriction of freedoms in other areas. We currently see a re-traditionalization of certain areas in terms of gender, in children’s clothing or toys, for example.” It’s a dynamic that requires a lot of political work. Prof. Müller knows that it isn’t just about developing new role models for women, but also about developing new notions of masculinity, new role models for men. “We can’t strive for equality and only change our ideas of what women can do. We also need more versatile ideas of masculinity – for example, seeing men as capable professionals in caring professions as well as normalizing men taking parental leave and caring for children.”
Finally, Prof. Müller tells us about an interesting study by Wendy Faulkner, who looked at gender authenticity in engineering: In her study, Prof. Faulkner talked to men and women in the same engineering field about why they chose to become engineers. What stands out is that the men say they were interested in the subject matter and found the profession exciting and that was it, whereas the women in the sample exhibited a more complex narrative. They, for example, justified their career choice by saying that they had always had “unusual interests” for a girl. “This points us to two things,” explains Prof. Müller, “First, that for certain job profiles, the idea of femininity and this particular job profile are still perceived as not congruent. Thus, women working in this profession feel the need to explain why they are “female engineers”. Usually, that requires a narrative that distances themselves from “normal” women. Secondly, we can see the extra work that women and other people who are perceived as not being the norm in a profession, such as people of color or of diverse genders, are facing. In that case, it’s an explanation for why I am where I am.” For reflexively addressing the issue of women in science and technology, destabilizing this idea of certain professions as “masculine” or “feminine” is hence essential. Ultimately, we do not need narratives about exceptional women making exceptional careers in science or technology: being an engineer or being a scientist and a women needs to become utterly normal.
The Power of Women at TUM
TUM has introduced a variety of formats to encourage young women to pursue their studies in science. “With our offers, we want to get them excited about the subjects located in the STEM fields,” explains Burgert, who heads the initiative ExploreTUM, which not only provides prospective students with information and advice, but also gives them a deeper insight into the subjects. An important aspect of this is the promotion of female students and graduates. Read more here: https://www.wi.tum.de/the-power-of-women-at-tum/
Save the date and join us for an exciting online program on the nationwide Girls’ Future Day, the annual career orientation day for girls, on April 22nd at TUM Campus Heilbronn!
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