I want to be like [the programmer] Ada Lovelace

I want to be like [the programmer] Ada Lovelace

Students at one of the robotics workshops given at the ARCE Academy in Madrid.

(Roberto Martin)

Irene was good at maths and the best when playing with Lego. She knew how to programme and build electronic circuits before finishing primary school, so no one was surprised when she designed her first robot at the age of 12. However, when asked what she wanted to be when she was older, she could only imagine herself becoming a psychologist or a schoolteacher. That’s what was considered “normal”.

If life had followed its “normal” course, Spain would have lost a first-rate engineer.

“I’m from that generation for which girls had to be princesses, had to wear skirts and do arts degrees. It was a struggle for many in my family to understand why I wanted to do robotics,” explains Irene Álvarez Caro, now director of the Spanish competition robotics association ARCE (Asociación de Robótica de Competición Española).

She finished university in 2014 and her story has continued to be an exception ever since. Only 32 per cent of the world’s students enrolled in science, technology, engineering and maths (collectively known as STEM) degrees are women. And that is a serious problem.

Everything would seem to indicate that the work of the future will be in technology or nothing. It is forecast that within Europe alone at least a million STEM jobs will be created by 2020.

If robots start to take the place of humans in many of today’s jobs and male-dominated professions become the only alternative, what does the future hold for women? What place will they have in this fourth industrial revolution?

According to the latest PISA report, only one in 20 girls considers working in a scientific or technological field in the future, compared with one in five boys. It is not because they do not like science or because they do not do as well at it, not by any means. The problem, as Álvarez Caro insists, is that they are not given a chance to try it.

Women are not better at arts and men are not better at science

Over half a million students from 72 countries took part in the latest edition of the PISA tests, in 2015. The researchers that year focussed above all on assessing scientific knowledge.

As the report notes, there was very little gender difference in the results. The girls, however, acknowledged that they were more anxious when it came to doing the exercises. Is it therefore an innate skill that depends on the gender with which we are born?

Not at all.

“Research on biological factors, including brain structure and development, genetics, neuroscience and hormones, shows that the gender gap in STEM is not the result of sex differences in these factors or in innate ability,” concludes the UNESCO report Cracking the code: Girls’ and women’s education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) .

The real causes are, in fact, linked to discrimination, social norms, expectations, and pressure to do what is considered “normal”. The myth that there are jobs for boys and jobs for girls has been so often repeated over the centuries that even the girls end up believing it.

“Girls don’t take an interest in science because they are not expected to take an interest in it. And when they do so they’re confronted with the misgivings of those around them, their classmates, their teachers and their parents,” explains Cecilia Castaño, professor of applied economics and an expert on gender in information and communications technologies (ICT).

The blame lies with gender stereotypes, the preconceived ideas that dictate how men and women are supposed to behave. According to an article in Science magazine, children internalise these stereotypes as early as age six.

“Girls are given dolls from the moment they are born. Boys, however, are expected to discover the world and we give them cars and airplanes. It’s a social construct that we all take part in,” says Castaño.

And that construct is perpetuated throughout our childhoods. As noted in the OECD studyThe ABC of Gender Equality in Education, most families tend to find it easier to imagine their sons becoming engineers than their daughters becoming telecommunications experts.

That is why, ultimately, girls tend to have less confidence in themselves, suffer from greater anxiety when faced with a maths problem and why, when it comes to going to university, they opt for degrees related to health or education.

Why do they drop out?

Women taking STEM degrees are confronted with a range of obstacles. The first is finding the courage to defy the norm and the second is finding the strength to keep going. Over 70 per cent of the adolescent girls starting a technological degree give up before reaching the end.

“It is true that many of them opt to transfer to another course,” says Álvarez Caro. “It’s very hurtful when, after choosing such a difficult course, you’re devalued and your worth is questioned. I had good classmates, although one of them did say to me that being a woman meant that my degree was worth less.”

This woman engineer talks not only about discrimination but also about sexual harassment. Yes, it also happens outside of Hollywood.

“In general, the environment at university and then at work is very masculine and quite hostile for women. Women engineers are expected to behave like men. If they have children, they are penalised for it,” insists the university professor Castaño.

The result of all these barriers is a huge amount of wasted talent. Because, although the number of women engineers and scientists hired in Europe has grown by 11 per cent since 2008, they still represent no more than 2.8 per cent of the total workforce, as shown in the European Commission report "She Figures 2015".

“It’s really hard to find women programmers,” admits Marta Tercero, CEO of the Spanish company Worktoday App, an application to find employment by the hour.

According to the director of this tech company, there is another consequence arising from the lack of women in STEM fields.

“A genuine wage bubble is developing in the programming sector. If only men take these jobs, the wage gap will keep growing wider.”

She also works as an adviser for the Stem by Girls project aimed at encouraging girls to go into STEM fields. There is only one way to avoid the unequal future ahead of us, she insists:

“If we start trying to motivate girls at age 18, it’s already too late. It has to be done from the moment they start school, and within their own families.”

Educating without stereotypes

The Álvarez Caro’s academy could well contradict all the data mentioned so far. There is an overwhelmingly female majority in her robotics class (six girls and one boy), working comfortably with rotating gears and moving parts.

“To say that only men can be engineers is sexist, women can do the same as men,” asserts one of her pupils. She is 9 years old. It is the hope of a new generation that is beginning to break down the stereotypes.

“I try to teach my female students that they have no reason to feel like oddballs. The fact that I am a woman helps a lot,” says the director of ARCE.

That is precisely one of the recommendations made by UNESCO to help close the gender gap in STEM studies: there needs to be more female science and technology teachers, more role models that they can see themselves reflected in. It also recommends including female role models in textbooks.

Names such as Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer, Margaret Hamilton, a NASA engineer who was responsible for Apollo 11 landing on the moon, or Joan Clarke, the mathematician who succeeded, together with Alan Turing, in cracking the Enigma machine code and thus helping the Allies to win the Second World War.

“We cannot take it for granted that the gender divide will correct itself simply through generational replacement,” insists Castaño. Comprehensive measures are needed, ranging from education and mass media to work-life balance. It’s the only way we’ll manage to have boys who want to be like Steve Jobs, and girls who want to be like Ada Lovelace.

“We need to work harder at equality; to cut the sexism in all sectors, across the board. While there is still sexism, there will continue to be more women doing arts and humanities degrees and more men doing science,” adds Álvarez Caro. And while things go on like this, we will continue to waste talent.

Without women we would not have set foot on the moon or defeated Nazism. We would not have discovered the radio, or known what a computer algorithm is today. With just 32 per cent of women with STEM degrees, it is time to start thinking how many engineers, IT specialists, scientists and mathematicians are being lost, but also how many we can gain.

This article has been translated from Spanish.