Conversation with Donatella Sciuto, Vice-Rector of Politecnico di Milano
Decreasing the gender gap is part of the 2030 agenda of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, including in relation to the prevalence of women in STEM subjects. Disciplines that provide very high employment rates but are still predominantly the preserve of men. What are the factors that are causing this gap?
The factors are diverse and can in my view be traced to three dimensions: individual, context and culture. By individual I mean personal attitudes; by context I mean the environment in which girls grow up – the family, the school, the community closest to them; by culture I mean that of a country or geographical area, which with its own rules can influence individual choices.
Even today, there is still a distinction in children’s play between male and female roles: from pre-school onwards, girls are used to being confronted with certain models, and even those who have grown up with different models when they are with their peers tend to conform to the “expected” behaviour so that they are not marginalised. And growing up things do not change, because in adolescence group identity is even stronger.
At the level of family context, gender socialisation is usually favoured and the same applies to exposure to science, mathematics or technology: girls tend to be less exposed and therefore less interested in these topics, probably also by virtue of group identity. There is a lack of role models, which at this stage of growth are of a different kind.
Girls often have a lower level of risk-taking than boys, which is why families tend to protect them more. In some contexts, scientific careers are considered more “risky” than others, or less appropriate for girls because they are male-dominated, thus fuelling the fear of a hostile working environment.
At the cultural level, there are countries where the study of scientific disciplines is more widespread, such as some Asian countries, and girls are consequently more inclined to study them, even if this does not necessarily lead to scientific careers. In Europe and the Anglo-Saxon countries, the study of science is less widespread, with the exception of the Scandinavian countries where gender equality is more deeply rooted at all levels.
Against this background, what role should universities play in reducing the gender gap in these studies?
We can do a lot, and from the earliest stages of schooling: by working with schools we can show that science and technology have no “gender” and are fun and interesting for everyone.
With this purpose in mind, in recent years the Politecnico di Milano has organised science lessons and workshops for primary school children in collaboration with Focus Junior magazine.
To create awareness and encourage orientation on 11 February, the UN’s day dedicated to celebrating women in science, we published a video to help girls consider engineering as a university path. The video is now being distributed in the secondary schools we are in contact with. In fact we work a lot with secondary schools, and in particular with physics and mathematics teachers to discuss engineering-oriented teaching. We also organise Summer School Tech Camps for third and fourth year students. Tech Camps take place in English, last one week and involve the development of a technology project (theory and practice) which are presented to the families.
At our university we have also decided to support girls with specific scholarships. The Girls@Polimi programme aims to encourage their enrolment in engineering degree courses where they are less represented, by offering additional financial support funded by companies: in the first year we had 2, in the second 12 and now 20. Then there are scholarships for female master’s degree students, and mentoring courses, again in collaboration with companies.
Finally, and this is a prerequisite, in addition to guidance and support, universities must ensure equality and ban all forms of discrimination.
In Europe, our country has a higher percentage of female PhD graduates, in total and also in STEM areas, more than Spain, the UK, France and Germany (*Ministry of Education report on women’s careers in academia, March 2020). Does this mean that we are moving in the right direction as far as women’s representation is concerned or is this just a first step?
We are only at the beginning. Looking at the data more closely, one realises that it is good because STEM subjects often include biology and medicine, which have never had the problem of a gender gap. Let’s use biomedical engineering as an example: at our university, female students in this course account for 50%. However, in other areas there are very few women, such as electronics and IT, where the female rate is less than 10%, despite the fact that IT professions are in great demand. At doctoral level, the figures improve because we have a lot of female foreign students who decide to study here, so the international presence reduces the gap.
It is true that we are in a moment in history when there is awareness of the problem and a renewed interest on the part of companies to reduce the gender gap, in line with the SDGs, but reality shows that it is the pay gap that is still important, and it occurs from the first job and with equal grades in studies.
In order to help women professionally, it is essential to eliminate the pay gap, and for their development consider them from the perspective of diversity.
An increase in female representation is therefore relative if it relates only to certain functions and areas of the company, which are usually more humanistic.
There is still a lot to be done in this respect and the right place in the job market still has to be won.
Apart from gender issues, what are the challenges of inclusion that you think are most pressing for the research and university sector?
First of all, support the careers of women. As one moves up the academic hierarchy, there are fewer and fewer women, as was found in the report by the Italian CRUI (Conference of Italian University Rectors). Women’s careers should not be damaged by caring duties and motherhood, for example. We have created an economic bonus to support the return of female researchers after maternity leave and support them in resuming their scientific research activities.
Apart from this, I believe the issue of inclusion must be addressed in universities in the full extent: the priority is to create the conditions for welcoming diversity in all its forms.
We are doing this with the “POP” (Polytechnic Equal Opportunities) programme, which aims to ensure a study and work environment that respects gender identities, different abilities, cultures and backgrounds. As an international university, it is also important to learn to live with people from different cultures, and this is a path to which we must all commit ourselves, lecturers, students and administrative staff. In order to achieve these objectives, in last year’s reorganisation of the services at the Politecnico we wanted to create an organisational unit to follow all aspects, called Equal Opportunities, within the Campus Life area.
People should not be judged by appearances, but by merits. Only by eliminating any kind of stereotype or prejudice can we build an inclusive world for all.