08 August 2016

‘B phobia’ is holding women back

Author :


We have a drastic shortage of women in our STEM industries. Contrary to popular myths, this is not because we are worried about emasculating potential husbands. It is not because we are worried about chipping our nail polish. Nor is it because our brains are more ‘creatively skewed’.

We are afraid of the ‘B’. No, not the insect, but the big letter which was usually written in a red felt-tip pen at the head of our exam paper.

Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard, has found that the likelihood of a woman dropping a subject increased steadily as her grade fell.

This “discouragement gradient” was not evident in their male counterparts.

To exacerbate the situation, it has been proven that science departments, on average, grade 0.4 points lower than humanities departments. If we err away from subjects in which we receive lower grades we are already at a disadvantage.

I’m sorry to say that I was the perfect stereotype. Having reached year 12, it was time to drop a subject and I immediately sacrificed that in which I had earned the lowest grade: biology.
Whilst we are often told to “play to our strengths”, the STEM industries are ones in which mistakes are acceptable, if not absolutely necessary, to make progress.

Edison was told by his teachers he was “too stupid to learn anything”, was fired from his first two jobs for not being productive and there were 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at investing the lightbulb before he succeeded.

Einstein’s theories about the nature of light and the fundamental connection between space and time were described as “somewhat radical” and to be “more artistic than actual physics” in his Doctoral rejection letter from the University of Bern.

As women we need to embrace the ‘B’. It is okay to be mediocre- it means we have room to grow.

Now tie your hair up and get to work.


Attend Akolade’s Boosting Women in STEM national forum for strategies to overcome the shortage of women in STEM classrooms and careers. Bringing together sector leaders in a national summit, it strengthens pathways between tertiary education and industry to ensure we have the best talent in our STEM sector- not just the best male talent. 


Claire Dowler is a Conference Producer with Akolade. She recently graduated with a double degree: a Bachelor of Journalism and a Bachelor of Media and Communications Studies majoring in International Communication. Claire minored in sarcasm and puns.

A ballroom-dancer who collects salt and pepper shakers and volunteers for animal rescue, you might say Claire has eclectic interests.

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