Unconscious Bias and Gender Stereotypes in STEM

Gender imbalance in the workplace and, most of all in the STEM sectors, has been highlighted following the 2017 UK Government’s introduction of the reporting of pay gap data. The data has shown further evidence that women’s representation in the tech industries remains very low. For example, in March 2018, Microsoft, one of the biggest tech employers, reported that its female representation in technical roles in the UK was 18.2%, whereas female representation in non-technical roles was 34.2%.


Some academic research has looked into the reasons why women are less likely than men to apply for positions in male-dominated professions. It has found that some women give as a reason that they want a good work-life balance; they identify those positions as not having a good work-life balance and so do not consider them to be right for them. However, the study found that, digging deeper, the work-life balance reason did not hold true. For example, some of female-dominated professions have also unpredictable hours and long shifts, such as midwifery or nursing. However, women were not deterred from working as midwives or nurses due to work-life balance reasons.


The study also found that in male-dominated professions such as surgery, STEM roles and the police forces, at entry level women and men expressed the same level of ambition to work in that sector. However, over time during the course of their training, women became less ambitious and more women than men dropped out for reasons unconnected with competence. The cohorts studied were of different ages, from late teens to early twenties for the undergraduate scientists, mid-twenties for the police recruits, and mid-thirties for the surgeon trainees and showed similar trends despite the difference in age. Therefore, the reason for women’s decreased ambition was not found to be linked to women shifting their attention to their “biological clock”, as some may have thought.


The study concluded that what gradually eroded women’s confidence was the realisation that only very few women succeed in those professions. Therefore, as women started to realise that the chances of their ambitions being fulfilled were lower because of their gender, they shifted their ambition to other professions where they thought they had more chances of succeeding. Some academic research has found that the lack of role models for under-represented groups can act as a de-motivating factor for members of those groups to set and pursue ambitious goals in their chosen profession.


Therefore, the small number of women working in STEM may act as a discouraging influence for some women to study, and apply for, STEM roles. Some women’s stereotypes of themselves may be that they cannot be successful in working in tech because of their gender.


Stereotypes can form the basis of unconscious bias. Unconscious bias are implicit assumptions that the human brain is hardwired to make so to facilitate the processing of information. Our brains receive a constant influx of information from the senses and the environment. This is estimated by scientists to be 11,000 million bits of information from the senses per second, but it can only process 50 bits per second. Therefore, our brain needs to find ways to deal with information quickly and effectively to help us operate. Having a set of pre-determined assumptions helps with easing the brain’s work of working out models every time.


Gender stereotypes bias can however hold women back. Traditionally, some occupations have been done mostly by men; these include working in tech and STEM roles. Because of the unconscious assumption that one has to be a man, or have characteristics generally ascribed to men, some women may feel they are not suitable for those careers. However, the assumption that one has to have those “masculine” characteristics to do those jobs has not been founded on any logic or rationale, simply by tradition.


It is important to put in motion a process of change of perspectives of what women can do and of gender and career in the whole of society. It is also important to help women change any unconscious assumption that some jobs are only for men. Understanding unconscious bias and how they influence one’s perception of oneself and one’s competence in a male dominated environment can help women appreciate that their gender is completely unrelated to their ability to do the job.


It is important to bring into awareness any unconscious bias we may have and to have a rational assessment of what it means to work in tech and the STEM industries, not using stereotypes, but using evidence and rationality. Changing women’s perspectives of themselves and disabling unconscious bias holding women back is therefore important to decrease and eventually eliminated the gender imbalance in the tech and STEM industries.


Alexis Faber is an expert in body language, cognitive psychology and deception-detection. She is the founder of In-Sight, which uses unique a skill-set to train organisations on body language, cognitive bias, equality in the workplace, and to advise organisations on HR matters. Alexis can be contacted on alexis.faber@in-sight-edge.com or via https://www.in-sight-edge.com/.