Nothing funny about being #distractinglysexy

Lisa Annese
Topics Gender
Lisa Annese Chief Executive Officer Diversity Council Australia

Many of you will have rolled around the floor laughing if, like me, followed the ‘#distractinglysexy’ Twitter campaign earlier this year. Hilarious pictures of talented women working in science, decked out in lab-coats, knee deep in an archaeological dig, mucking around with cell cultures, in bunny-suits integrating satellites – all in response to some commentary made by Professor Tim Hunt, Nobel Laureate and sexist. Tim Hunt claimed that women should not work in labs or other isolated science sites because they were too distracting for the men, generally too emotional and altogether unsuited. His solution – single gender labs.

The storm that arose after these comments culminated in his resignation from his honorary position at the University College London, the board of the European Research Council and the Biological Science Awards Committee of the Royal Society.  But it also brought out the phenomenal wit of women all over the world who are working daily in pursuit of the truth in science and progress for human kind. If you are not familiar with this recent Twitter campaign, simply type #distractinglysexy in your Twitter feed and spend a few hours glorifying in the achievements and talents of women!

Professor Tim Hunt's comments reveal an uncomfortable reality. Girls and women are significantly underrepresented in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Maths) studies and careers and this exclusion starts really young.

Engaging girls in STEM early

In a 2015 study by a UK Group called Tomorrow’s Engineers, the attitude of parents towards the career selection of their children was tested.  Parents were very comfortable with their sons becoming engineers, scientists and tradespeople but these were not (statistically) careers they would choose for their daughters. Surveyed parents demonstrated a preference for their daughters  to enter teaching, nursing and hairdressing and were uncomfortable with their sons making those choices. 

Why is this the case? Is there any evidence that girls are less capable for hard science endeavours or that boys are less capable of educating and caring? None that we could find. Indeed the research reveals that there is no such thing as a male brain or a female brain with relation to these gendered career pathways. Recent discoveries in brain plasticity reveal that changes in neural pathways and synapses are constantly occurring and are influenced by changes in neural processes, environment, behaviour, thinking and emotions – rather than by gender.

Under-representation of women in technology careers

The consequences for women are stark.

According to the OECD, women may earn up to 15% less for simply working in a different kind of career. ABS data in Australia supports this, noting that one of the reasons for such a large pay gap in the country is the vast occupational segregation of the genders.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, full-time working women account for only 26.5% of those in the Information Media and Telecommunications industry and less than 28.1% of all Professional, Scientific and Technical Services. Even worse, full time women account for only 18% of technical roles in manufacturing, 14% for mining roles and only 5.9% in construction roles.

On top of this, Australia is entering into a skills crisis in the areas of STEM careers. According to Deloitte’s 2015 Australia’s Digital Pulse report, digital technologies are the fastest growing parts of the economy, having grown from $50 billion in 2011 to $79 billion in 2014. The report describes Australia’s talent shortage with unmet demand for available work in the economy for over 100,000 information technology and computer science positions. Further, according to the Australian Industry Group (Ai Group), jobs in STEM industries are growing at a rate 1.5 times faster than other industries (measured from 2006-2011). Despite this, Ai Group states that only 18% of the workforce has STEM qualifications.  This percentage drops dramatically if we look at the qualifications of women.

This talent shortage is being felt all over the developed world. In the UK, according to the Social Market Foundation (2013) there is an annual shortfall of 40,000 STEM workers. The impact of such shortfalls will be well felt across international markets through the impact of talent gaps, a reduction in innovation and progressive drops in productivity.

DCA works with employers to tackle these issues

On 21 July 2015, Diversity Council Australia held its inaugural Diversity in Technology network. This network is open to all DCA members in technology industries as well as DCA members who have sections or areas in their workplaces working in technology fields. The goal of the network is to discuss challenges and successes specific to the technology industry in a closed and trusted environment. There will be a natural focus on supporting and retaining women in the industry as it makes no business sense to not to attract 50% of the market’s available talent.

Engage girls in STEM studies early is critical

According to the US Department of Education, girls who have a strong sense of self regarding their abilities in maths and science are more likely to choose these subjects and do well at them. The Department suggests work needs to be done on improving girls’ beliefs about their abilities in these areas as a way of impacting their later educational choices. The OECD found that girls still lack confidence in pursuing careers in STEM even when their school results are as good as or better than boys. A UK study on teenagers and their confidence in maths (led by OECD) revealed that despite these outcomes, girls spent more time worrying (56% versus 39%) than boys and were more nervous (33% versus 20%) doing maths problems. The theory that perception is everything cannot be overstated.

And so in a bid to change these figures, it is very important that parents and schools work together to support girls to aim for and enjoy science and maths, and for boys to also enjoy humanities subjects without getting any backlash from their peers. Further, Australia’s Chief Scientist believes that Australian teachers need better STEM training. Ai Group has called for national STEM skills training for schools and of course there is a role for parents and for peers as social role models that impact the social context.

Female scientists and women in STEM should never ever have to deal with another eminent male professor mocking their contribution and asking for gender segregated labs again – even if their intelligence, determination and workplace contributions are #distractinglysexy!


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