Want People In STEM Fields – Make Sure They Want To Be There

I have a lot to gain from having more women working in STEM but not if any of them are being forced into doing it. If the cost of the next cool device or medical cure is some women being forced to become an engineer or researcher against her will, that is too high a price to pay.

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STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. When I first heard it used in this way, probably more than ten years ago, I didn’t know or even care what it meant. I was too busy doing something to even give it a moment’s consideration. But as is the case with life and the important things, STEM was something that mattered and it started to matter more and more.

My educational background is in psychology and physical education. I did take some science classes in high school but the only STEM university placement courses I took were biology, “algebra and geometry” and kinesiology. I took about 2 weeks of calculus before calling it right in the middle of the first test. The rest of my placement classes were social science and arts (not fine). My marks were sufficient for me to get into university and I more or less stayed in the arts / humanities lane taking one biology course, a biological psychology course, and a few economics courses as electives. This meant that I read more than I did, and my degree doesn’t exactly have deep roots in the pure or empirical sciences. This is something I am fine with.

While I would do it differently if the opportunity was presented, this statement is based solely on the wisdom that the world today is very different from the world of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. The truth is that I didn’t really enjoy science as much as I enjoyed other things and at the time, an enjoyment of other things was sufficient to justify going to university and getting a degree in social science or the arts / humanities. STEM was much less important thirty years ago because people still got high paying jobs that they would work for their entire life before retiring with a full pension that allowed them to travel and live a life of leisure.

I am lucky because I have a decent brain and I enjoy learning. For one reason or another, I am curious about how things work and I find the moments of realization to be exceptionally rewarding. The notion that people will have four or five careers in their working life is not a daunting task. In fact, I’m happy about it because it has forced me to reinvent my professional self a few times already. The thing is that I will never have a career that is purely in the STEM field. While I do not rule out a consulting, training or a management role in one of these industries, I am never going to be an engineer, work with complex math or to be a scientist in the lab coat sense of the word. I believe that I will be able to learn enough about any of these things to communicate effectively with my staff and coworkers should I end up in this area, but I am not going back to school to learn to be an engineer or anything like that. Those people have a skill set that I do not have and am content to never acquire.

I am a male, so my decision to take psychology in university was one that moved me into a field that was and remains majority female – the ratio of women to men is about 2:1. This did not bother me and I do not remember thinking, at least in a bad way, that I was outnumbered or that I didn’t belong. I was just getting a degree and since I didn’t have any intention of getting a masters or PhD I wasn’t competition or a threat to anyone. Towards the end of it, I was just happy that it was almost over and was more interested in moving on to the next phase of life. And when I graduated, my brother gave me a job working for an IT company that he had started and that was the beginning of my exposure to anything that was STEM in terms of a career.

I bring this up because all of this was my choice. My parents wanted their children to go to university because our brains were fast enough to make it through and because Canada provides people with opportunities that were not so readily available to my parents when they were that age and living in Ireland. But there wasn’t much pressure on us to do anything specific. My brother has a good brain for science and was considering taking a music degree towards the end of high school. Our folks didn’t care about it all that much so long as he took advantage of the chance to go to university. He’s a good writer and could have excelled at English, he could have excelled in medicine, neuroscience, whatever, and our parents would have been happy. The key was that we honor their sacrifice and go to university to take what we wanted to take. While we didn’t really have a choice about going, we were free to pursue whatever we wanted so long as we went. He earned a science degree and I earned a psychology degree and our parents were happy.

I don’t know what I would have done if my parents had told me that I NEEDED to become an engineer or a doctor. First off, medical school is really competitive and I’m not certain that I have the intellectual horsepower to gain entrance. But assuming that I do, I would have had to take a lot of science courses that did not, at the time, interest me. While engineering is less competitive and my brain is probably fast enough for it, there is still the problem of all of the prerequisite math and science courses. I did very well in year two statistics which was heavy on the math at the time, so math wasn’t necessarily out of my wheelhouse, it just wasn’t a part of my high school academic plan. I’m fairly confident that IF my parents had forced the issue early on, I could have earned an engineering degree, but it would have come at the cost of studying things that didn’t interest me and would have included a heavy serving of contempt for them.

In the last ten to fifteen years there has been a push towards generating more diversity in the STEM fields, and this push had gained a lot of force over the last five or so. On the face of it, this seems like a good idea. There is ample evidence that when the population as a whole is given access to education, the entire society benefits. And the opposite is equally true, when segments of the population are denied the opportunity for education, the standard of living and the average level of life satisfaction plummets. Brains are very useful and when they are filled with information and mental processes, the outcomes they can generate will shift the course of our entire species. This cannot happen when education is made available to only white men or to men in general. The moment all races and women are given access to a high quality education is a turning point for a society. It can take a few years for the benefits to surface, but they are inevitable and once they take hold, there is no turning back.

In fact, countries that do not offer government funded access to high quality education to all of the citizens contain a lot of people who WISH they could attend school because they are very aware of the value it has and the power it affords someone in shaping the direction and quality of their life. Women and girls are willing to risk death to go to school because they know full well how it is going to help them in the future.

So the notion that women and minorities should have access to a high quality education and the opportunity to pursue whatever field their academic interests and abilities make available to them is something that I fully support. I do not, however, believe that there needs to be more women in STEM fields or that the percentages of women and men in these fields should be equal to the population distribution of women and men – 50.4% of the population are women therefore 50.4% of the engineers should be women. Be clear, I am not suggesting that the current employment make-up is appropriate, nor am I suggesting that there is nothing to be done to ensure that women take advantage of the opportunities to pursue STEM. I am simply suggesting that there is not necessarily a “need” for more women in these fields.

This topic is radioactive and it does not need to be. For some reason it is emotionally charged in a way that gets people to put words into other people’s mouths, interpret things in the least charitable way, and to assume that any position that is counter to the “everyone is exactly the same” view as a statement that one group is inferior. It is an exhausting exercise for all parties – one group gets exhausted jumping to conclusions while the other group gets exhausted trying to clean-up a deliberate misunderstanding and walking back things they never said.

At the core of this topic is an untested assumption that there are not enough women in STEM. I happen to believe that the number of women in STEM is not as high as it should be, and I also believe that the number of men in STEM is higher than is should be – here I am talking about real numbers and NOT percentages nor am I assuming that this is a zero sum situation. For example, assume that there are 1000 STEM jobs right now and that 200 of them are held by women. The proper numbers should be 312 women and a total of 1067 jobs; meaning that 45 men left the field. Of course, these numbers are illustrative only, I have no idea what the actual numbers are.

This is actually the point, no one knows the numbers.

Which is the source of the problems when trying to have a conversation about it. People feel very strongly that the numbers are not correct, which would be fine if they just had a feeling about it, except they take action based on this feeling. The first action they take is to create a long list of reasons WHY women avoid STEM and the second action is to set about addressing all of these reasons. The irony about this is not lost on me, and I hope it isn’t lost on you either.

This is NOT how science works. Science works using evidence and facts and the moment something is shown to not be a fact, it is eliminated from both the consideration and the statistical analysis to ensure the data is not corrupted. While assumptions will be made, they are made only so they can be tested. And when they are proven wrong, they are discarded. What comes out the other end is a theory. There is a common and incorrect notion that a theory is a guess and is just something that is waiting to be proven false. It is so much more than that. A theory is an assumption that has not been proven false after countless tests and experiments to prove that it is false. In fact, scientists KNOW that if they are able to prove a well-established theory to be wrong, they are well on their way to academic legend status and possibly a Nobel Prize. Of course, the error in believing that a theory is just a guess or an assumption is based on the non-science understanding of science and is likely the result of someone mistaking hypothesis with theory. A hypothesis gets tested, a theory has been tested hundreds or thousands of time and is supported by mountains of evidence.

The whole thing about STEM starts with a conclusion and works backward to get the evidence that will support the conclusion. It isn’t an operation that pure scientists have undertaken because they would not approach the subject in this way. This is exactly why conversations about women and men in STEM fields turn into dogmatic battles about equality, power and privilege.

The scientific approach would have all of the stake holders get very clear on whether or not there is a problem and if there is, what exactly the problem is. The hypothesis that there are not enough women in STEM is not the same thing as a factual statement that there are not enough women in STEM. The moment this hypothesis is accepted as true, we have made a turn toward the unknown and are resting our foot on the accelerator. We haven’t journeyed into the realm of science fiction YET, because the hypothesis might actually be true, but we are about a moment away from leaving the truth seeking lane.

Before I go any further, it makes sense to talk about what the numbers actually say because they do not support the prevailing narrative that it is an irrefutable fact that there are not enough women in STEM.

First off, girls and boys do not differ in their abilities in STEM areas in primary and high school. The abilities of each group are statistically equal – this means that they are not necessarily identical but there is almost nothing between them. Girls however ARE better at language than boys. The difference isn’t much, but girls and boys are NOT statistically equal in terms of ability in this area. You need to let that sink in and allow the ramifications to start to surface.

The next thing to consider is that in egalitarian societies, more girls choose to NOT pursue STEM when compared to less egalitarian societies. This is something called the “Gender-Equality Paradox” because the person who labeled it was not a scientist – it is only a paradox when the premise is true, that the ratio of women and men in STEM should be the same as the ratio of women and men. If the premise is not true, the finding that a higher percentage of women will choose things OTHER than STEM when given more complete freedom to choose their course is something other than a paradox.

Also, in societies with fewer social welfare programs, more women choose to work in STEM fields. Now there is a correlations between how egalitarian a society is and the level of social welfare programs, so it is difficult to pull these factors apart. But it is worth considering that when people in modern society need security or safety, so money, more women will work in STEM. This could be due to the fact that these jobs pay more than jobs outside of the STEM fields although no one is sure.

Throw all of this together and the picture begins to become cloudy.

If it was true that women and men were the same, there wouldn’t be any difference between them on their abilities in any area. But women are better than men at language therefore women and men are not the same. Neither is better (except of course if you are talking about language abilities at which point women are). Language isn’t just one thing in the way multiplication is one thing, nor is it one thing in the way that mathematics is one thing. Language is in fact a part of EVERYTHING. While addition is a thing that exists independent of anyone knowing how to add numbers together, it is only something that we all know about because of language. The same applies to gravity, acceleration and momentum, so every aspect of physics. And everything else there is to learn. Without language, our ability to know things would be severely limited because we could only learn through direct experience.

The fact that women and men are equal in terms of STEM abilities has everything OR nothing to do with language. Everything because anything that is known and taught is taught with language and nothing because without language each individual person would have to learn everything through experience meaning that neither group would know very much about anything STEM. This is very important because language came before STEM and without language statistically NOTHING STEM would have been discovered.

So given that women are better at language and that language plays a critical role in everything, how might an enhanced language ability alter the decisions that a person makes? There are two things that need to be said about this. The first is a matter of competition and the second is a matter of choice.

Dealing with competition, if a man wants to be the best at something, they will need to do something that women are not better than men at or something that men are better than women at. This means something that isn’t very dependent upon language abilities or does rely on physical strength. If a woman wants to be the best at something they will need to choose something that men are not better than them at – physical strength – AND something that women are better than men at. The first assumption, the one that assumes equality between women and men, creates the situation that the individual MIGHT be better than everyone else (or is at least potentially as good as the other gender). The second assumption is purely about reducing competition. If there are 100 people, fifty women and fifty men, a woman who sets out to be the best are something that women and men are equal at will have to compete against 99 other people. But if they select something that women are better than men at they will only have to compete against 49 other people; this is cutting the competition pool in half, which is always a very good first step when trying to become the best at something.

This begs the questions – why would this matter and why would anyone want to be the best at anything? It matters because resources are scarce and a disproportionate share of the resources go to those who hold the top spots. Even if we do not like them, hierarchies exists and there is a certain amount of wisdom coded into our DNA that has us being operationally aware that the top is better than anywhere else on the scale so it is worth trying to reach the top. Our evolutionary history has written this fact into our genes so human beings will automatically engage in hierarchical determining behavior very early in their life. Our advanced mental functioning has allowed our species to move away from dominance and focus instead on prestige, intelligence, social status and other ways to compare ourselves to other people.

Women want their share of the resources and are willing to go after getting them by utilizing an intelligent strategy that maximizes their possibility of success. It makes complete sense, when you look at the math, that women would choose to do things that are NOT in the STEM field because those areas are hyper competitive and they do not have an innate advantage over men in this area – both are equal in terms of ability. They choose to pursue excellence in areas that offer them the best advantage, which just happen to be areas in which language plays a much larger role.

That’s the game theory piece of it. The experiential part of it is also a factor. Many women report having more satisfaction with the academic pursuit of subjects that are not included in STEM. They are good at both, they just happen to enjoy one more than the other. And remember that, all things being equal, people tend to repeat the actions for which they get rewarded. If everyone went after STEM, the doubling of the population pool would translate into a dilution of the rewards as they would be spread out over more people.

So you need to ask yourself a few questions – is the goal of having more women in STEM fields a noble one? Is making sure the percentage of women pursuing and working in STEM is equal to the percentage of women in the population a problem that we should be trying to solve? Phrased another way, if two female babies are born tomorrow morning and you had to choose between making sure that one of them ends up in STEM while the other ends up outside of STEM OR making sure they were free to choose their own path, which is the more noble goal?

It is not an easy thing to consider – well, it is, but it isn’t an easy thing to say that answer out loud because the answer is so obvious that it feels like something is being missed AND, more importantly, there is a very real sense that simply saying that you support equality of opportunity and are against forcing people into jobs that do not interest them have a quality of being trigger points to a vocal and hyper aggressive segment of the population.

But this is what it has come to for some crazy reason.

For thousands of years, women and men have been working together to manufacture knowledge, discover the nature of the world, and to keep the species going. Each did the role they were best at and while there have always been outliers, individuals who were better or more interested in the things the other side was doing, things did not break down. In fact, life was for the overwhelming majority of people and for almost the entirety of human history, nasty, brutish, and short. It was absolutely awful. Food scarcity, disease, infant mortality, death during childbirth, infection and the fact that our teeth cannot repair themselves meant an existence that was basically one insult after another.

The richest person and anyone else who was talented and hardworking enough to find themselves at the top of any hierarchy would have only a slightly better go of it. Make no mistake about it, life was dreadful by today’s standards for absolutely everyone up until the last 150 years. It got marginally better when William Thomas Green Morton discovered anesthesia in 1846, in 1847 when Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis discovered that hand washing was an effective way to prevent the spread of infection, and transformed in 1928 when Alexander Fleming discovered what would be called penicillin. This gave our species the upper hand in terms of reducing physical suffering and it began to dramatically reduce the overall mortality rates around the world. And thanks to STEM and other fields, things have been improving rapidly since.

But it wasn’t until the late 1960’s and early 1970’s that birth control became completely legal, a moment that marked the beginning of the social period we are currently navigating our way through. Giving women near total control over their family planning transformed the well-established and traditional cycle of life. Starting a family could be predictably delayed until the time was “right” for all of the involved parties. This advancement, when combined with the dramatic improvements in health care and the significant reduction in infant mortality, translated into fewer children who were being born to older mothers. This means that women were taking advantage of improved access to education AND they were remaining in the work force for longer before starting their families, returning to the work force after having their children, and were spending less time being pregnant.

This changed the workforce dynamic in such a profound way that it is hard to overstate the ramification. The workforce did not necessarily double, but it did potentially double, meaning that jobs for all of these new workers were needed or else there was going to be some very severe consequences based on macroeconomic principles. The increase in supply would trigger a decrease in the demand, which tends to lower the wages. Over time, this can be managed, but when it occurs in the matter of a few years, things do not go so smoothly.

Two other factors come into play that tend to diminish the impact the role of women choosing to enter the work force in large numbers plays – civil rights and automation. All of these things are related – the civil rights movement and the women’s liberation movement had effectively the same goal – and when they are successful in even a small way, they have the same impact on the economy. There is an increase supply in workers in ALL levels of ability and the notion of gender and race specific jobs begins to evaporate. Then it is mostly a matter of time before everything normalizes UNLESS another significant factor begins to manipulate some of the variables. Which is exactly what automation did and continues to do.

This should not have been a surprise to anyone, considering that it is what always happens when more people start to work in an industry. More minds working a problem results in greater productivity, more complete knowledge growth and faster solutions. These translate in to quicker progress, which will lead to more automation. More automation means lay offs, leading to an increase in the supply of workers, which triggers a decrease in wages for less skilled jobs.

Most of this is great – equal rights for all people is perfectly fine. Universal access to a high quality education is an ideal situation. The freedom to choose how one exercises their liberty is very important. BUT there are going to be consequences to all of these things, and this is what is becoming very clear. People choose to do the things that they like, want, believe they need or actually need to do. And that is the beginning and end of it. Each individual only has control or impact over their own actions which means they are not in a position to make an accurate guess of what other people may choose to do. The consequence to this is that while many people have worked hard and sacrificed in order to make sure there is equality of opportunity, there is no reason to believe that anyone will take advantage of it in a way that makes sense or in a way that was predicted by those who made it all possible.

This is where we find ourselves right now and it’s a very challenging place to be. To recap:

  • Universal K to 12 education is available and mandated for ALL young people in North America and many western societies – for all races and all gender identities. This has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of people who are low skilled or semi-skilled, which will reduce the rate of pay for these jobs.
  • A dramatic increase in the availability of disposable income stemming from changes in the banking regulations, leading to a big boost in the number of people who attend post-secondary education – this results in a dramatic increase in the number of moderately skilled, which will reduce the rate of pay for these jobs.
  • A transition towards automation of low skill high labor jobs, causing a big reduction in the number and rate of pay for these jobs.
  • Strong social programs, such as government health care, social security, government pension, and welfare, ensure that people will be able to maintain a minimum standard of living REGARDLESS of how they choose to spend their time working.
  • A movement towards a more egalitarian culture / society gives people the opportunity to do what they want to do as opposed to doing what they have to do in order to get by.

These five variables interact and lead us to experience what we are experiencing now – an overall reduction in full time high paying jobs, the elimination of low skill full time high paying jobs, the creation of large numbers of low pay low skill part time jobs, the creation of modest numbers of high skill and emergent technology jobs, a work force that is bloated at the low skill area as all citizens graduate high school with this skill level, a level of equality of opportunity that has never existed before, and the prevailing belief that people should pursue what they are interested in vs. what pays well or will lead to something greater down the road.

Hindsight is always much more accurate than foresight, but in this area, I do not think it would have taken much for the thought leaders at the time to have an honest and frank discussion about what were the most likely outcomes of automation, universal education, a dramatic increase in the amount of money available, and the efforts to make sure all doors are open for all people. As I mentioned before, one of these things could probably have been weathered without any difficulty, but the collection of them is a lot more to handle and what things will look like when we come out the other side is going to be very different from how things looked when it began.

And this is the problem with the push to get more women into STEM fields. There was a time when this was possible, but that time has long since passed. The moment “choice” is given to people, they will exercise it and do what they want to do as opposed to doing what they have to do or are told to do. So while we cannot make any prediction about the gender or ethnic characteristics of any single person in STEM, given that women and men score effectively the same and that all people have about the same chances of having the intellectual horsepower to become a scientist, engineer or doctor, we do know that women and men do not share preferences and that some cultures value STEM more than others, meaning getting more women into STEM may not even be something that is desirable, let alone possible.

When people do not have a choice and need to make as much money as possible, they are more inclined to pursue STEM because these jobs pay more. But when people have the choice and live in a society that has social safety nets, they are going to choose the things they like or are good at. So unless women like STEM more than any of the other fields, they are less likely to choose STEM because it doesn’t interest them as much and because they are slightly better than men at the other things meaning less competition for the top jobs in those areas. If this is the case, the efforts that are being made to move women into STEM will not be successful and may actually hurt the field by causing the displacement of potential people who are not accepted into the field because of their gender.

The goal is misdirected and based on an assumption that the way things have been traditionally was a result of a desire to keep women out of STEM and not a consequence of anything else. This assumption does not stand-up to scrutiny. STEM is relatively new when compared to other fields and most other jobs. Many of the jobs that exist in STEM did not exist until the last 50 years and did not exist in the numbers they do now until recently. The end result here is that while women were not a big part of the work force for most of human history, neither were men. Most of the time has been spend with women and men doing whatever tasks were needed to keep the family fed, safe, and secure. Having a job that allows people to trade time for money to spend later is at best, a few thousand years old. Before then, people did what they had to do to survive, and getting their needs met was the only form of payment they would receive.

Yes, men have been a formal part of the work force for much longer than women, but neither has been a part of it for very long. This is mostly irrelevant to STEM because these jobs require a decent brain and a lot of education. Since universal schooling is a recent addition to society, the number of those who are educated enough for STEM was limited until recently. The statement that in 1950 there should have been more women in STEM is a reflection of the fact that there were not a lot of people in general who worked in STEM as opposed to there being a deliberate push to keep women out of these fields. There probably could and should have been more of them, it is reasonable to believe that had they learned the foundation skills to be an engineer, they would have been able to make some very meaningful contribution to engineering. HOWEVER, this is a far cry from saying that there should be equal number of women in STEM as there are men.

The problem that needs to be solved is one of access vs. participation, because it is inappropriate to force people to work jobs that they do not want. I want to live in a world that grants people the opportunity to pursue what interests them and not one that forces them to do a specific job because someone has made the decision that the gender breakdown is not appropriate. A male should be as free to pursue nursing, teaching or psychology as a female should be free to pursue surgery, coding, coaching, or engineering. And males should be free to pursue surgery, coding, coaching, or engineering while females are free to pursue nursing, teaching and psychology. If you like it and someone is willing to pay you to do it, you should be free to do what you want with you time and with your life.

And this is what I think we are in the middle of right now. We’re leveling-up the education of everyone, and making sure that people have the same opportunities. Once these things have been achieved, the people will make the call on what they are going to do with their time, even if that means choosing to do something other than what the progressives think they should do or choosing to do what they have traditionally done. Time will tell what is going on and until then, we’re all just making some guesses about it.

This brings us to the end of this post. Hopefully I can leave you with a rhetorical question to always keep in mind when you are living your life and happen across a group of people who have good intentions but little evidence to suggest that their interventions are 1) going to do anything and 2) there is actually a need to do something. When there is no clear problem to be solved or the problem that they are working to fix exists solely as proof or evidence that there is a systemic problem, there may not be anything to do at all; meaning all of their actions are a complete waste of time.

I have a lot to gain from having more women working in STEM but not if any of them are being forced into doing it. If the cost of the next cool device or medical cure is some woman being forced to become an engineer or researcher against her will, that is too high a price to pay. Frankly, I’m sick of forced labor and all of the ways that human beings have been taking advantage of other human beings since someone invented exploitation. While it has been responsible for a lot of the amazing things that our species has created or built, it’s just a dreadful way to behave and it needs to stop. So while I am not implying that trying to get more women into STEM is the same thing as the labor that built the pyramids, FORCING them into these fields is. Which would make it a bigger problem than the one that they are trying to solve. So while women can do almost all of the same things that men can do, this does not mean that they will want to do these things. Time and the opportunity to do them will shine a light on what is the appropriate gender breakdown in terms of STEM field employment. Until we have proof that there is a problem to be solved, any solution actions that are taken are most likely going to achieve nothing of value and will never deliver us to a world that is in anyway more ideal than the one we inhabit today.