More women in science and technology could lead to better solutions, finds Katherine Rowland.
Educational bias, workplace policies and lack of encouragement may go a long way to explaining why only 27% of scientific researchers worldwide are women. But while equity is reason enough to tackle the issue, the world may have a lot more to gain from a better balance.
"We have to ask what we are trying to achieve by recruiting more women in science and engineering for sustainability", asserts medical doctor, architect and TED Fellow Rachel Armstrong of the University of Greenwich. "Is it just a matter of greater representation, or is it a matter of seeking women's influence in these disciplines?"
Armstrong's own work is driven by the need to find solutions for 21st century life. It's not just about industry, she argues: it's about reimagining human identity. "We need new answers for urban spaces and the way we use resources, especially as they become more constrained. Will introducing more women bring about that change?"
Quite possibly, says Jeremy Greenwood of Lafarge Readymix, a global leader in building materials. At the most basic level, he explains, bringing more women into STEM translates into increased diversity, leading to more innovative problem solving, and better results overall.
More women means more diversity, more innovation and better results
Others, including Armstrong, maintain that women display qualities which are needed in the field. "Women tend to facilitate, cooperate, nurture and orchestrate," says Armstrong: "Their approach is less 'top-down, fix the broken machine' than it is holistic and collaborative, a great asset in science and engineering."
Melissa Sterry, Head of Technology at Earth 2 Hub, concurs, pointing to the social roles women play by way of explanation: "As family members and mothers, women understand sustainability as a way of securing the future." For Sterry, yesterday's bias against women in STEM could even be today's advantage. "The time is now to make progress as a woman in science", she argues. "Yes, women have to push to be heard. When they introduce new and creative ideas, they're subject to more scrutiny, and so forced to look at issues more closely. This has a powerful impact on building the future."
Whether the motivation is sustainability, diversity or research for its own sake, the question remains: how can we address STEM's gender gap?
Claire McNulty, Director of Science and Sustainability at the British Council, calls for a closer look at what could drive women to go into science, while addressing the perception that it's geeky and dull. "Science is about discovering new answers, from how the brain works to generating clean energy. We need to show that science can be applied to the issues that really make a difference," she says.
Indeed psychologist Amanda Diekman of Miami University, Ohio, found that many women find science out of sync with their professional ambitions. "Women tend to have 'communal goals'", she says. "[They] want careers where they're helping others and solving social problems. The perception of science as a profession of lonely lab hours can be irreconcilable with women's aims when they want to engage with the world."
Are women more likely to pursue careers on the solutions side of science - just as they are more likely to assume leadership or managerial roles in companies with a focus on sustainability, rather than in general industry? Could better information about the application of science to real world issues help to raise the proportion of undergraduate applications from women to the Institute of Physics from the baseline of just 35% in 2011?
Silvia Giordani of Trinity College Dublin, who was recently awarded a L'Oreal-UNESCO fellowship for Women in Science, believes it could: "It's important to send the message to young women that science gives you tools to take on the world's problems."
For Carmel McQuaid, Climate Change Manager at Marks and Spencer, solving the world's problems can be a strong motivating factor for women who face conflicting pressures, she observes: "Women may find it easier to be happy with the career choices they make knowing that they're working to ensure clean air and water for future generations."
Nonetheless, having children or caring for elderly dependents often coincides with the opportunity for women to progress in science, business and in wider society, acknowledges McQuaid.
"Without access to affordable care, and to good role models and mentors, and without efforts to overcome real or perceived barriers", she warns, "we may fail to maximise the potential of women and their experience to drive change."
Katherine Rowland writes about health and the environment from New York.
Green Futures is the leading magazine on environmental solutions and sustainable futures.