Why #WomenInTech Needs to Stay in the West

Four years ago, I wrote a personal story responding to #WomenInTech or #WomenInSTEM campaigns in Europe and North America. I compared my experience attending high school in Indonesia and Australia, and learned how teenagers in a more economically developed country have more options in choosing what to study at higher education institutes leading to a career.

Three years later, I moved to USA and observed the stronger campaigns for getting more women to tech. After observing a number (surprisingly high) of gender biased situations in daily life and studying its tech culture that makes women leave tech jobs, I wrote another article, published by Code Like A Girl. In the article, I argued that diversity campaigns wouldn’t solve the problem, as it will only cure the symptoms, that it’s better to cure the disease, by addressing bias toward minority.

The low representation of women in tech is a cultural bias. A fellow Code Like A Girl writer, who is from India, wrote her personal story as well as her experience in Canada and made comparisons. We are actually saying the same things! Here are the main points:

  1. In India and Indonesia, parents and teachers emphasize the importance of STEM subjects to any talented or hardworking students regardless of gender. In addition, STEM subjects are regarded as a way to get good jobs and economically better life.
  2. Women in tech (Computing) are not so underrepresented. In her class (2011–2014) there were 55% female students, and in my class (1998–2002) there were 20% female students and 33% in later classes.
  3. Back then as teenagers, we didn’t hear about any initiatives like “pinkifying tech” or having a special girl club to attract girls to STEM subjects.
  4. Women in Computing are not treated differently. We are sufficiently respected by male colleagues. Computing is in fact considered female friendly. Many of my female colleagues didn’t leave it after having children, because they can work from home, e.g. web development and SAP administration.

While #3 and #4 are our personal experience and observations, #1 and #2 have been studied by social scientists. An article in The Atlantic was the door to my search for such studies. Read that article if you prefer to skip the following section :)

Summary of Social Science Studies

Charles & Bradley (2009) analyzed data from 44 countries and found that indeed in transitional/developing countries there are more women in Mathematics and Engineering, while in advanced industrial countries there are more women in Health and Social Science. The data of countries participating in Trends in International Math and Science Surveys (TIMSS) was obtained from UNESCO.

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Data from 1995 & 1999 TIMMS

The paper supports #2 from the main points mentioned above, although India wasn’t in the data. What about #1? The paper argues that the industrialization of a society created cultural forces toward gender segregation (that I’m not discussing here because it’s too long). Let’s look at a small cultural proof in the table below. The differences can be seen as early as 8th grade. There is much less interest in math and science by girls in advanced industrial countries than in developing/transitional countries.

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Source: Charles & Bradley (2009) (download paper via SciHub)

A possible explanation on the fewer girls in advanced industrial countries interested in STEM subjects could be found in a series of studies conducted in the USA. At Gender & STEM Conference in 2014 (download PDF file), Eccles presented her studies about American parents’ perceptions of their children’s academic abilities. Quoted:

“mothers’ ratings of their daughters’ English ability also predict the children’s own rating of their English ability but not their interest in English. But, even more interestingly, mothers’ ratings of their daughters’ English ability predict their daughters having lower ratings of their math ability and lower ratings of interest in math.”

“Even though girls actually get better grades than boys in math, these parents felt their daughters were working harder to do well in math than their sons and that the reverse was true for English. But, even more importantly, parents thought their girls were working harder to do well in math than in English. Not surprisingly, these parents also thought their daughters had more ability in English than in math.”

We have no evidence that these girls were performing more poorly or working harder in math than their male peers. We asked the girls how hard they worked in each subject and we asked their teachers how hard each child worked in each subject. There were no gender differences on these measures for math.”

That’s the American explanation. How about the worldwide one? Stoet, Bailey, Moore, and Geary (2016) published a study using data from Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). It’s an international assessment conducted in 68 countries on different school subjects. This data was contrasted with Human Development Index (HDI) report from UNDP and Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI) from World Economic Forum. The title of the paper (free to download) is clear: “Countries with Higher Levels of Gender Equality Show Larger National Sex Differences in Mathematics Anxiety and Relatively Lower Parental Mathematics Valuation for Girls”. Quoted:

“we found that boys reported higher perceived parental valuation of mathematics than did girls, and parents actually rated mathematical development as more important for sons than for daughters. The differential valuation of mathematics between the sexes was larger in more developed countries. Paradoxically, economic and social development was associated with a widening gap between parents’ beliefs about the importance of mathematics for sons versus daughters.

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See the vertical line on zero? In the countries on the left, parents think mathematics is more important for girls than for boys. Notes: AE: United Arab Emirates, AL: Albania, AR: Argentina, AT: Austria, AU: Australia, BE: Belgium, BR: Brazil, BU: Bulgaria, CA: Canada, CH: Switzerland, CL: Chile, CO: Colombia, CR: Costa Rica, CZ: Czech Republic, DE: Germany, DK: Denmark, EE: Estonia, ES: Spain, FI: Finland, FR: France, GR: Greece, HK: Hong Kong, HR: Croatia, HU: Hungary, IC: Iceland, ID: Indonesia, IL: Israel, IR: Ireland, IT: Italy, JA: Japan, JO: Jordan, KA: Kazakhstan, KR: South Korea, LA: Latvia, LI: Liechtenstein, LT: Lithuania, LU: Luxembourg, MA: Malaysia, ME: Montenegro, MO: Macao, MX: Mexico, NL: The Netherlands, NO: Norway, NZ: New Zealand, PE: Peru, PO: Poland, PT: Portugal, QA: Qatar, RO: Romania, RP: Perm (Russia), RS: Serbia, RU: Russia, SE: Sweden, SG: Singapore, SH: Shanghai, SI: Slovenia, SK: Slovak Republic, TH: Thailand, TN: Tunisia, TR: Turkey, TW: Chinese Taipei, UI: Uruguay, UC: US state Connecticut, UF: US state Florida, UK: United Kingdom, UM: US state Massachusetts, US: United States, VN: Vietnam.

The same authors (Stoet & Geary) published another study in 2018. Also using PISA data of 67 countries, they tried to contrast the number of women in STEM with the GGGI. The chart below shows that generally boys have more interest and enjoyment in science than girls (higher self-efficacy in science), where the gap is wider in many economically developed countries. There are only very few countries where girls have higher science self-efficacy than boys (one of them is Indonesia).

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Source: Stoet & Geary (2018) (download paper via SciHub)

The higher interest and enjoyment in science is reflected in the number of STEM college graduates (using data from UNESCO). Plotted against the Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI), the authors found a paradox. Countries with lower GGGI have more women among STEM graduates. Lower GGGI (more gender inequality) means fewer opportunities for women, so how come more women graduated from STEM programs?

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To explain the paradox, the authors used another data, Overall Life Satisfaction (OLS) from UNDP. Quoted:

“Countries with the highest gender equality tend to be welfare states (to varying degrees) with a high level of social security for all its citizens; in contrast, the less gender-equal countries have less secure and more difficult living conditions, likely leading to lower levels of life satisfaction.”

Furthermore, the authors tried to provide an explanation that I tried to provide in my first article four years ago: “revert back to their biological comfort”. Girls choose not pursue STEM careers because they have other interests related to their academic strength (not necessarily STEM subjects). Quoted:

“the liberal mores in these cultures, combined with smaller financial costs of foregoing a STEM path, amplify the influence of intraindividual academic strengths. The result would be the differentiation of the academic foci of girls and boys during secondary education and later in college, and across time, increasing sex differences in science as an academic strength and in graduation with STEM degrees.”

Until here, I’d like to argue that gender inequality in STEM careers is caused by two things:

  • Lack of financial reasons for pursuing STEM careers combined with more interests in non-STEM careers among girls (among women who do STEM, do they leave once they find well-paid non-STEM jobs?)
  • Positive cultural biases toward boys, which may or may not explain higher interests and enjoyment in STEM subjects among boys than girls (no evidence of gender differences in academic performance!)

Let’s not try to push for 1:1 female:male ratio in STEM, because clearly there’s an intrinsic factor underlying the less interest in STEM subjects among girls. If you’d like to read more about this topic, I suggest you read the work of Stoets and Eccles. Stoets, a professor in Leeds, UK, uses a lot of international public data to come up with his results. Meanwhile, Eccles, a professor in California, USA, uses both developmental (“nature”) and motivational (“nurture”) perspectives to study gender and STEM.

Let’s Discuss Indonesia

It’s clear that Indonesia doesn’t have a bad representation of women in STEM. Girls are more interested in science than boys do, and there are more than 35% women graduating from STEM programs in college (40’s % is the world’s top). If you want to improve the life of Indonesian women, let’s start with the GGGI. What are the parameters?

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Indonesia’s result in WE Forum’s GGGI 2017. The source of each parameter can be found in the free downloadable report

Apparently, Indonesia doesn’t need to worry about education of women. Look at the green boxes above: all f/m ratios are more than 0.9 (some are more than 1). For tertiary education, the same data is also released by Indonesian government: higher education statistics, showing that there are more women than men graduating from college (diploma, bachelor, professional and specialist programs). This data may explain the small gender gap in professional and technical workers (0.97), sourced from International Labour Organization (“those who increase the existing stock of knowledge, apply scientific or artistic concepts and theories or those who perform technical and related tasks that require advanced knowledge and skill”).

Indonesia can improve economic participation and opportunity of women — if needed. Labor force participation (0.62) could be improved, but this number may have been caused by more women participating in informal labor force, self-employment, and as migrant workers. I don’t believe in estimated earned income (PPP, US$), because it’s an estimate based on the proportion of working women and men, their relative wages, and overall GDP of the country. We can’t determine proportion of working women only from formal labor force.

Wage equality for similar jobs (0.71) may need improvement, but I doubt the accuracy of this data, since it’s only based on Executive Opinion Survey by WE Forum (1 = not at all, significantly below those of men; 7 = fully, equal to those of men). I’d rather depend on Korn Ferry’s most recent global salary data (actual numbers), showing that Indonesian women are paid more than men, a.k.a. the gender pay gap is negative for the same level of jobs. The only positive gap is the overall gap, which means that fewer women advance their careers so they end up in lower-paying positions (fewer women in leadership positions). This explanation is in line with the GGGI data, where there are fewer women than men in senior and managerial positions (0.28). Yet, all that can be explained by the more time women take away from work to take care of family, or women deliberately choosing positions that don’t interfere with taking care of family.

Political empowerment of women need to be definitely improved. According to GGGI, Indonesia only has 25% of women in parliament and 35% women in ministerial positions. We wish to see more female ministers and parliament members. We could also push for a female president full term!

Since there’s not much said about health and survival in GGGI, I’d like to use the data from Indonesia’s former Minister of Health, Nafsiah Mboi, who just published a paper in a prestigious journal as the first author (at the age of 76!). She (yes, a woman) has also served as board members of various health organizations worldwide.

The paper (free to read) discusses the improvement in life expectancy 1990–2016, universal health insurance coverage since 2014, and which diseases are burdening the nation. Among others, the authors discuss women-related health issues, like premature birth complications. Another one, quoted:

“Tobacco is currently the fourth leading risk factor for premature death and disability in Indonesia, which also has the world’s highest daily smoking rates for males: in 2016, more than half of males older than 10 years smoked daily. Although smoking rates among females are much lower, two thirds of Indonesian women are regularly exposed to second-hand smoke. Nonetheless, tobacco control remains highly contentious within the country, and Indonesia has yet to sign the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control — the only country in Asia and one of only nine worldwide not to do so.”

Decolonizing Feminism

If you’re reading until here, you see that I’ve used a lot of space to discuss why #WomenInSTEM or #WomenInTech is not an issue in a country like Indonesia. Are you still not convinced? In the WE Forum’s GGGI report, I found UNESCO’s data about STEM graduates. Look at Indonesia’s values first: 0.51 (Engineering), 0.52 (ICT), 1.22 (Science-Math), which are the ratio of female graduates to male. It means that a third of Engineering and ICT graduates are female, and more than half of Science and Math graduates are female. Pretty good? Let’s compare it with other countries.

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Left: Indonesia (female, male, ratio), and Right: ratio values from other countries

Note that Belgium, Finland, USA (random countries that could use some #WomenInSTEM campaign) have really low proportion of female graduates (0.05 to 0.21), while Indonesia, Singapore, India, Iran have higher ratios (0.36 to 2.7). If we narrow it down only to #WomenInTech or “Code Like A Girl” (ICT), we see how Indonesia, Singapore, India, Iran have higher proportion of female graduates (0.52 — 1.04). Note that I picked Iran for the high values, and Singapore because it’s an economically developed neighbor of Indonesia. I picked India because it’s the only other country than Indonesia whose qualitative observation I know (the writer mentioned in the beginning of this article).

Now I’d like to introduce you to Decolonizing Feminism. It’s the idea of dealing with a country’s feminism issues from its citizen’s own point of view, not from the Western (“colonialist”) perspective. An example of decolonizing feminism is what I’ve done in the previous section: addressing the parameters of GGGI to find the real feminism issues in Indonesia.

As a designer, I advocate for solving problems that really exist a.k.a. problems that are really experienced by the people. We can’t just copy the West solution of creating tech clubs for girls. #WomenInTech is an initiative currently being campaigned in the West, because they have the issues (while Indonesia doesn’t).

I haven’t found any studies regarding how the respect women get from male colleagues differ across countries. As I mentioned early in this article (main points #4), I only experienced it myself. Especially my observations in a tech startup in Jakarta (2015–2017) said no problem. We can’t just copy the American solution #DiversityInTech, because they are using it to address more serious problems: racism and tech “bro culture” (Indonesia doesn’t have those). Don’t pretend to know American racism, because it’s not a matter of skin colors. Don’t pretend to know white male entitlement, because it’s very American (I didn’t experience anything like that in the Netherlands, a very white country, working with mostly male coworkers).

If you feel like reading 52 pages of Charles & Bradley (2009) that explains the cultural forces toward gender segregation caused by industrialization of a society, please do. There must be an explanation that we can learn from feminism under specific cultural forces. For example, a Gallup poll in 2011 shows that the gap between women and men feeling safe walking alone at night is wider in many industrialized countries.

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Let’s deal with feminism issues locally. Go find more evidence of gender gap that you find hurting women or taking away women’s rights. You can also try the various UNDP data and compare it between men and women and find out whether the gap needs to be addressed.

Would you prefer to do something that’s more difficult than reading public data, but more rewarding? Go talk to women around you. Observe women around you. Who knows some of GGGI parameters may not be culturally relevant to the actual problems in your country because it’s a “Western” metric.

Thank you.

[a storylistener | a connector] on a journey to spend the privilege of living among the multitude of humanity in multiple countries

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