April 12, 2018 — Take one 15-year-old student. Add her Chief Technology Officer (CTO) father to the mix. Ask them how we can help women succeed in science- and technology-related professions…and stand well back…
As a 15-year-old student whose dad is a scientist, I often find myself pondering the subject of women and girls in science. And I’m sorry to report that the statistics appear to be true: despite girls generally outperforming boys in math and science classes, too many of my female classmates just don’t find science very engaging.
I think a lot of it comes down to ideas we’ve absorbed from our culture that we don’t even recognize (I believe the term is “unconscious bias”). Ask anyone—boy or girl—to imagine a scientist. No one thinks of Marie Curie; people think of a guy in a white coat with wild hair, creating havoc in a lab, or Q from James Bond with all the latest cool gadgets.
It is easy for girls to lose interest in science very quickly when they’re made to feel that science is not something that they are really supposed to be doing. But this is a big loss because for me—and a lot of my friends—the world appears to be at a tipping point. We are genuinely fearful for our future and we want to make a difference. In my case, eliminating famine is something I care passionately about. For someone else it might be designing the next iPhone. In both instances and many more, science and technology are obviously going to play a big role.
Engaging girls in the sciences should start with creating an environment where they are genuinely included and encouraged to pursue science. Showing students how the sciences can help us find solutions to global problems will help, because people really work hard and enjoy something when they are interested in the topic. For example, I discovered my interest in chemistry as soon as it was linked to the environment. I did a research project about plastics, and instead of researching water bottles, I decided to look into plastics in the cosmetics industry—a topic many of my male classmates may not have been as aware of.
Unfortunately we have a long way to go before STEM fields present a more inclusive environment for women and girls. The reality is that my experience many boys feel threatened by a word like “feminism,” even though they may not know exactly what the term really means (i.e., equal opportunity for women and men!).
Is it their fault? No! It’s unconscious bias at work again, and it’s up to all of us to change it. A good start would be to teach students about bias alongside science—because getting your voice heard during a science lesson on a Monday afternoon can be tough!
Another way to motivate girls to engage is through positive female role models. I see Emma Watson as a hero. She has used her wealth and fame as a platform for change, to inspire young people like me. Despite the (often male) media shooting her down, she’s not going to give up. Girls and young women would benefit from greater exposure to women who have excelled in STEM fields and who are making a difference in the world.
And here’s a piece of advice I’d like to share with all young people out there: don’t be afraid to speak up. If you’re a boy and you see inequality or unfairness at school that you don’t agree with…say something! And if you’re a girl, don’t be ashamed of something that you are passionate about. Really living our values is the only way we’ll change things.
And through living our values, I hope we will see a lot more female scientists in future.
My daughter isn’t afraid to speak her mind, and that’s something I’m very proud of. Granted, we may not agree on everything (I am not a fan of Riverdale and Justin Bieber), but her experiences at school echo much of what I have seen in the workplace.
On the one hand this is understandable. On the other, it’s a little worrying. Isn’t this meant to be a new generation with a more progressive outlook?
At DSM (where I work) we have outstanding female scientists, but in a male-dominated environment, they might not always feel comfortable “speaking up,” as my daughter puts it. I’m a male leader, and while I consider myself a reasonable person, sometimes that fact alone can be intimidating, so I need to address that. Ultimately, men need to be more conscious and aware of how they think and behave—because it’s important that everyone is included and has an opportunity to be heard.
I recently found myself in a strategy lunch meeting with nine men and one woman. I’m not sure anyone thought about this ratio at the time, but afterwards I took the men aside and asked them how they would have felt had it been the other way around. It was an interesting discussion!
One thing’s for sure: giving my daughter the confidence to succeed in a male-dominated world starts in the home. It means dads like me providing an environment where a girl feels listened to and taken seriously, and for both parents it means giving daughters the freedom to just be themselves! Just because you're of the female gender, does that mean you need to pursue a career that society regards as “feminine”?
Again, we return to this phrase, unconscious bias, which extends beyond gender to all kinds of other subliminal assumptions we make, including those of us working in science. Maybe we need to do a better job of explaining what science really is nowadays.
Game-changing science is not a man in a lab having a eureka moment. It’s a mosaic—a diverse and complex team game where innovation happens at different interfaces. It’s often our ability to connect dots differently, or look at things from a different perspective, that determines our success, which is exactly why diverse teams generally perform better.
Think about it. In the future, we’re going to see more automation. Robots will be doing more of the jobs. So pure knowledge as we know it will have inherently less value. Hence our “human” qualities, like creativity and emotional intelligence, will become increasingly important—for all of us!
The bottom line is that we need women in science for science to continue solving society’s defining challenges—and I’m proud to say that at DSM we’ve put measures in place to make this happen, from making diversity a key pillar of our recruitment policy, to creating Women-Inspired Networks, to introducing mentoring programs that give women scientists the tools to succeed.
We are not there yet, but we are making progress. It’s one thing to have values, but you have to live those values. That’s something that Daniela and I can firmly agree upon!
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