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Mr. Spock, STEM and the Missing Female Scientists

Words by 3p Contributor
Leadership & Transparency
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By Dr. Raj Aseervatham

When Leonard Nimoy passed the last frontier a little while ago, I remarked to a friend that despite his good innings on this earth, it was sad to see him go. I was a bit nasally when I said this as I was, you understand, somewhat emotional.

She said, “Who’s Leonard Mooboy?”

I refused to speak to her thereafter.

It was illogical that she would not know of the actor who defined the objective, unemotional epitome of scientific grandeur: the intergalactic Zen master whose greatest wish for you was not for happiness, peace or love, but that you would "live long and prosper."

My friend, while aware of Star Trek through oblique references on Facebook and Twitter, was not mind-melded to Spock’s awesomeness. I blame her lack of knowledge on the fact that she did not do STEM at school.

The gender STEM gap


STEM is science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and it was not readily accessible for girls at school back in the day.

I have no idea why.

STEM is still not readily accessible for girls at school. I still have no idea why.

Maybe the subjects are not very inviting for girls. They don't even sound inviting to me, and I'm a die-hard nerd.

My daughter recently started at an all-girls’ high school. Their fees are very high. Their uniforms are very expensive. I’m told that this expense is justified because the young girls in this school get the very best opportunities. Apparently there is a correlation.

So, I asked the lady behind the Enquiries desk about STEM streams for my daughter, just in case she wanted to be a Lady Nerd. Between you and me, it is unlikely she will want to be a Lady Nerd, as she is very artistic, musical and communicative and likes boys on TV who turn into werewolves. But how will she know unless she has the opportunity to try these things?

The lady behind the desk looked unsure as to what I was referring. I even spelled out the acronym. We made no headway.

So, I am now pursuing my line of inquiry with the Head of Year.

STEM for girls still seems like a bit of a vague concept in schools -- even the ones that claim to offer the very best opportunities for young women. That’s a bit alarming, given that our stardate is well into the 21st century.

It’s alarming also because science and technology are fast-moving areas in the corporate world: unlike finance and accounting, which move ponderously; unlike law, which appears to move backwards and sideways and in Commonwealth countries has men in Batman capes wearing curly blonde Marilyn Monroe wigs in court.

Between communication technology, iGimmicks, biotechnology and medical breakthroughs, and overpopulation and food crises, the corporate world is clamoring for STEM talent and will in the future clamor even louder. Corporations and governments alike will require more and more STEMites, and these beings will provide innovation, competitive advantage and sustainable outcomes in meeting society’s needs in the future.

Meanwhile, half of our population – the female half – seems to be much neglected in our search for STEM talent.

The missing female scientists


I complained about this neglect just last week to an executive director of Engineers without Borders, the humanitarian engineering organization. I like Engineers without Borders because they are not limited by frontiers, just like Mr. Spock. The executive director was of the female persuasion, which was a pleasant surprise to me. I was surprised that I was surprised, which is a sad reminder of the social conditioning to which we are subjected. Mea culpa.

I found out some startling statistics. Quite steadily, since the 1990s in OECD countries, only around 14 percent of engineering students are women; and the graduation rate is marginally higher for women than for men. This hasn’t changed much in 15 years, despite a variety of STEM initiatives for girls in countries such as the U.S., the U.K. and Australia. So, you might conclude that very few women start engineering -- but they stay the course when they do -- and nothing has changed in this pattern for half a generation.

Flatline data from the U.S., which actually performs at the higher end of OECD countries (Courtesy of National Academies) is shown below.

Yet, despite this very low enrolment, women make up almost 40 percent of student volunteers in Engineers without Borders. I concluded, perhaps a trifle generously given that this is only one data point, that women are more likely than men to use their STEM power for good.

In addition to STEM streams at school, we perhaps need more female scientist role models today. The Telegraph, quoting statistics from a 2014 survey in the U.K. by ScienceGrrl (not a typo) where respondents were asked to name a female scientist, found that 68 percent of those polled nominated Marie Curie. Yes, good pick-up, but she's been dead for 80 years. At least the history courses are working.

In the old Star Trek, Mr. Spock was the quintessential techno-genius. Meanwhile, the only female on the bridge, Lieutenant Uhura (who was also black, heroically amplifying the minority typecasting), was the communications person. Her job was largely to relay, nearly word for word, what she heard on her headphones. She was the opposite of STEM. She was METS – Mindlessly Echoing Transmission Signals.

Sometimes Mr. Spock’s eyebrow would rise perceptibly when Lieutenant Uhura unleashed her METS skills.

Maybe, in an alternative universe, Spock would have worked better in the communications role -- faithfully, logically and objectively relaying every word he heard on his headphones to Captain Kirk. Maybe Uhura would have worked better in the techno-geek First Mate role -- a strong STEM-chick with empathy and a deadly nerve-pinch, role-modeling for a generation of women that would have then unleashed a legion of talented female scientists to do immense good for the world. We might have cured cancer back in the 1990s. Who knows?

A missed opportunity, perhaps.

Highly illogical, you say?

Transmission ends, Mr. Spock.

Image credit: /flickr/MDLPhotoz

Dr Raj Aseervatham has worked extensively in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas in various roles in government, consultancy and private industry. He is a Fellow of the Institution of Engineers Australia and a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.

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