Sunday, 5 February 2012

Sisters are doing it for themselves

There was an interesting article that came out in Science last week. The question of why some fields or careers, as well as high ranking positions in companies and government, are devoid of women is pertinent. In most first world countries, there is nothing stopping either gender from entering a particular career path (yes, there is still inequality, discrimination, glass ceilings and so on, and a few jobs with obvious physical limitations). For example, when I started my undergraduate degree, my first year physics course was populated by predominantly engineering students. I would say the class was 10% female. So it's not that women attempt to study engineering and are rejected, there are just not many who aspire to be engineers in the first place. Why?

The paper in Science is entitled Female Leadership Raises Aspirations and Educational Attainment for Girls: A Policy Experiment in India. Unfortunately, you need a subscription to read more than just the abstract, but I will give a summary.

In the early 90s, India experimented with having village council leadership positions restricted to women only for one or two consecutive terms in randomly selected villages. This is a really great thing for statisticians. There were three groups: the control (no female leadership), female leader for a single term, and female leader for 2 terms (allowing a measure of dosage). Now, all the kids who were born around that time are young adolescents, so the researchers interviewed them as well as parents. They interviewed several thousand people in all!

What they found was that in villages with female leaders, suddenly more girls had life aspirations beyond being housewives. They used a bunch of metrics, including whether they wanted to wait until the age of 18 to get married, whether they wanted a job that required tertiary education, etc. The effect also transferred to parents, who now had a wider range of career aspirations for their daughters. The other positive effect was that people had overall a better opinion of female leaders. Throughout all this, the aspirations of boys were never negatively impacted, so it was a win all around.

The authors concluded that the changes of aspirations of girls was the positive effect of having female role models. Rather than a role model being someone you want to emulate, I think of role models as someone you look at and think "I can do that too". Growing up, I never had an inkling of a doubt that as a female I couldn't do any kind of job. I had male and female teachers, my mom is a scientist, my grandma was an architect, I did karate as a kid and there were both boys and girls in the class. However, there are still countries and careers where women don't have the same life ambitions as men and are even viewed as being inferior for a job.

So here is my take home message: if you are a minority in your workplace, field, or hobby (be it gender, race, or anything else), keep at it! Even if things are difficult, remember that you are a positive role model for the next generation! Change happens slowly, but it does happen.

1 comment:

  1. Ohh that is an interesting piece of research! Thanks for sharing :-)