Reframe the story about gender equality in STEM careers
Practicing spatial skills has always intrigued me because it is so critical to being a good communicator. And there is some research that has shown that the spatial skills required in both higher education and the workplace are more evenly distributed in females than males. If you ask most graduate students at one of the country’s top schools on the subject, they will tell you that spatial thinking and visual intuition are just as fundamental to being a good communicator as they are in the classroom. But, the gender gap persists because women lack these skills in the workplace. When will something be done to bridge the gender gap in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) careers?
A new report by the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, or SIAM, doesn’t have an obvious solution for closing the STEM STEM gender gap, but it does point the way to finding one. While the study points out that spatial skills are an essential competency for both male and female students in any field, the report suggests an added benefit of these skills. In particular, seeing connections between two unrelated things using a paired pair of eyes and sensory-processing ability is more likely to strengthen a woman’s application and participation in STEM fields. This suggests that if we are truly promoting a gender balance in STEM careers, then working to develop the visual tools and object-matching skills needed for problem solving in STEM fields will be essential.
The SIAM report draws its inspiration from groundbreaking research that showed visual skills, specifically spatial abilities, play a role in women’s career plans. The research is especially insightful when it comes to women’s dreams. One study from Northwestern University found that female scientists wanted to find careers in which they could see connections between unrelated items. So, much like educators in classrooms, once women want to be in STEM, they are presented with those rare times when they can literally see things connecting. And once they find a career where this opportunity exists, there is still an ideal for them to attain more and more.
Increasing access to this opportunity has been the subject of a lot of controversy in our community, as often as not because female leaders believe they should lead change on their own, without bringing their brothers along as a trusted and supportive ally. But, the research from Northwestern University suggests otherwise, and the SIAM report urges us to take that advice.