Guest writer: How the words we use affect diversity in STEM by Nia John

by | Jul 3, 2020 | Guest Writers | 2 comments

This post is written by Nia John, a science communicator based in South Wales. She also volunteers with the Young Women’s Trust, a feminist organisation to advocate for economic justice for young women. Nia loves nothing more than spending time at science festivals around the world. Find out more about Nia and her work on her Twitter and Instagram pages.

What sort of person is a scientist? Which words would you put on the job description? Maybe you’d think of the data, graphs and maths involved in science, and you’d say logical, objective or rational. Maybe your idea of a chemist is working alone long into the night, so they need to be independent, ambitious and confident. Perhaps your physicist is running a research team, so they need to be a decisive leader who isn’t afraid of a challenge. These are all great skills and attributes, but they only show a narrow version of who a scientist is, and this has its own consequences.

In May last year, faced with tiny numbers of women applying for STEM apprenticeships, the Institute of Apprenticeships began to ​trial ‘gender-neutral’ language​ in their descriptions in order to boost female applicants. If you’re wondering what the ‘feminine or gender-neutral’ words they started adding to job adverts were, they included ‘understand’, ‘co-operative’ and ‘dependable’, which strike me as pretty great attributes for any scientist. The ‘masculine’ words which the Institute decided to avoid included ‘challenge’, ‘objective’ and, terrifyingly, ‘opinion’. While this says a lot about how young women see themselves, if you’re in the business of science communication, as I am, it should also be something to consider. If you’re excitedly talking about the challenge of the three body problem, but not about how physics can help you understand the world, you might be alienating half your audience.

The #SkillsHaveNoGender campaign from World Skills International.
World Skills International, formerly known as the International Vocation Training Organisation, was founded in the 1940s. It emerged from a desire to create employment opportunities for young people in the economies that were devastated by the second World War.
World Skills ran their 2019 International Women’s Day campaign around #SkillsHaveNoGender.

Thankfully, we can change the language we use to describe what a great scientist is, and by doing this we can welcome more different groups into STEM. We know that we can do this, because we’ve done it before.

Imagine, if you will, a successful Silicon Valley Techbro talking about programming. He says that the key is he’s meticulous and patient. He talks about the importance of pattern recognition, and about how his love of knitting had been a real help at the start of his learning. He goes on to say that, fundamentally, coding is menial and secretarial. To twenty-first century ears, a lot of this sounds a bit bizarre. But, in the early days of computer science this would have been considered pretty normal; that’s because coding was for the girls.

In the early days of the computer, the glory was to be found in the hardware – the switches and vacuum tubes. The software, the code that ran the computers, was considered secondary, less interesting, frankly a little dull. Most of the work was not so much writing the code, but debugging it, painstakingly checking every line for error. Under such circumstances, this was often given to women to do. If you look at photographs of codebreakers at Bletchley Park during the second world war, you’ll see plenty of women. In 1960, 27% of computer programmers in the US were women; Cosmopolitan ​ran a feature titled ​The Computer Girls in 1967; by 1984 37% of computer science degrees in the States were awarded to women. It didn’t last – it’s around 18% today.

Image shows the original 'The Computer Girls' article published in Cosmpolitan magazine in April 1967.
The Computer Girls, Cosmopolitan, April 1967. Image via Nathan Ensmenger.

There are many, many reasons for the decline in women studying computer science, but it should be noted that our language changed to help drive men into the workforce as programming gained prestige. The meticulous nature of the early programmers was replaced with a distinctively male obsessiveness. While early computers had been big, unwieldy team efforts requiring cooperation, the advent of PCs made programming seem like a solitary, antisocial venture. Cemented by popular culture depictions of ‘the nerd’, the reputation of the computer scientists, and computer science more generally, was cemented. A return to ‘menial’ is not the best way to encourage women back into programming, but it’s important to see that we have applied ‘gendered’ language to this field before, and only changed it when we as a society decided that actually, it was the boys’ turn now.

With this in mind, could we go the other way? Could the right words draw women to not just computer science, but other STEM subjects as well? Is the pen really mightier than the sword?

It’s certainly worth a go, and if you work in STEM engagement you’ll probably find that it’s not much work. Science is still science, there’s no need to change the fundamentals of your content, but ask yourself if the wording is quite right. For example, we all know science is a collaborative process, built on communication and cooperation, so let’s talk about that. Yes, computer programming is logical, but it’s also creative – by only talking about one narrow aspect of the field, you’re doing a disservice to your audience. Be careful what you say, and watch your language.