More women in the lab will help propel Hong Kong’s economy

Ivy Wong and Tjonnie Li say all highly developed economies have made investments in the sciences, so it is a shame that more local students – especially women – do not choose to study them

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 April, 2016, 6:17pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 April, 2016, 6:17pm

With the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education exams under way, high school students are about to finalise their choice of university studies. Historically, few high scorers have chosen science, and those who have are mostly boys. In February, media reports on the breakthrough detection of gravitational waves also lamented that students in Hong Kong are swayed from pursuing science because of the field’s perceived low earning potential.

Indeed, it is unfortunate that science in Hong Kong fails to attract more talent, because it is a catalyst for societal advancement. A recent study even found that science productivity, especially in the “hard sciences” (for example, physics and chemistry), predicts economic growth, and that no country without an investment in basic science has achieved high economic development. However, the “Stem” disciplines (science, technology, engineering and maths) have long been male-dominated. If more talent is needed for science, then the female population may be a valuable pool to tap into.

The male dominance of the Stem fields is clear. Of the 800 or so Nobel Prize winners, only 48 have been women, and only five of those won the prize for the “hard sciences”. Moreover, we tallied the regular professorial staff in the physics departments of the University of Hong Kong and Chinese University of Hong Kong, and found that female representation is less than 15 per cent. So, even today, the ratio of males to females at the top of the Stem career ladder is heavily biased.

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The pattern is similar at the more basic level. According to census data from 1996-97 to 2014-15, the gender ratio of students enrolled in sciences at government-funded tertiary institutions has remained stagnant (roughly 65 males to 35 females). Female representation in engineering and technology has improved, but still stands at less than a third.

It would be difficult to explain the issue in terms of “inherent science ability” between the sexes. For example, adolescent females in Hong Kong are far more likely than their male counterparts to be eligible for university entrance. Moreover, in high school, the gender differences in average science and maths performance are small at best. And there is little evidence that any gender differences are largely predetermined.

If more talent is needed for science, then the female population may be a valuable pool to tap into

In contrast, attitudes and perceptions have been shown to be a powerful influence; simply mentioning a supposed male advantage to students taking a test can affect the results accordingly, while telling them that both sexes are expected to do equally well reduces the gender difference.

However, teachers and parents often overestimate the male advantage in science-related abilities, and these beliefs may be passed down to their children. Girls in Hong Kong, like those in many other regions, perform only negligibly worse than boys in maths, but they are considerably less confident in their ability and attach less value to it. These may be some of the reasons why fewer girls choose science.

In the job market, employers may be unwittingly biased by the gender of the applicants even when male and female applicants have otherwise identical CVs. Even for women who are already in a certain field, the male dominance and working climate in science can be potential barriers for advancement.

Although part of the gender differences are to do with physiological factors, they are also the consequence of different childhood experiences; for example, having parents who endorsed gender stereotypes. Even children’s playthings have broad implications for why boys and girls are different. For example, understanding science concepts often requires spatial skills, and boys’ toys contain more features that help develop these skills.

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The goal of gender equality is not necessarily a 50:50 ratio. Rather, it is to reduce social barriers that prevent certain groups from having equal opportunities.

Elsewhere, measures have been established to help women realise their potential in science, such as special scholarships, women-friendly hiring policies and working conditions, encouraging girls to engage in play typically associated with boys, and reducing gender stereotyping in commercial products.

More importantly, in North America and Europe, research on gender and science thrives and the public is highly educated about the findings, resulting in strong forces for social change. In comparison, there is scant research on gender issues in Hong Kong, and there is little public awareness or understanding of inequality.

Social barriers holding women back from participating in science need to be taken seriously

Social barriers holding women back from participating in science need to be taken seriously. Science-related knowledge is required for many high-paying jobs, so a gender gap in science aptitude can contribute to income inequality. Second, with such barriers, individuals who could otherwise be outstanding scientists are lost – because they happen to be women – thus preventing the maximisation of society’s overall talent. Third, a diverse scientific population helps to ensure inventions are well suited for a diverse range of users. Lastly and more practically speaking, teams that are more diverse generally perform better. Recent research even found that bringing women into male-only teams boosted the team’s overall intelligence more than simple group cohesion.

Although much knowledge on gender and science can be borrowed from research elsewhere, it remains unclear just how much of it applies to Hong Kong. If the city is to realise its ambition to become a world-leading science and technology hub, the government, institutions and society in general will all have to make a more conscious effort to tackle the issue.

Ivy Wong is a gender researcher at the University of Hong Kong. Tjonnie Li is a gravitational wave astrophysicist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory