Why is Russia so far ahead when it comes to equality in STEM?
There are many ways in which we think of Russia as a bit backwards.
Whether that’s Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian government, the huge political power of Russia’s Orthodox Church, or the country’s shameful record on LGBT+ rights.
But when it comes to encouraging girls into subjects like science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), Russia is leagues ahead.
Really, really far ahead.
According to a huge study of 11,500 women across Europe by Microsoft, Russia was found to have a huge advantage when it comes to gender diversity in STEM.
The advantage starts at home, where 62% of girls in Russia say both their parents talk to them about STEM (compared to 44% in the UK).
Because of this, girls in Russia become more interested in the subjects at an earlier age, around 10 years old compared to 11 in the UK, and 50% of Russian girls go on to say they’d consider a career in STEM (compared to 43% in the UK).
In schools Microsoft’s report found girls in Russia perceive STEM subjects as gender-neutral, compared to 23% of girls in the UK believe they are geared towards boys.
That’s probably because in Britain most teachers openly admit to stereotyping boys and girls when it comes to STEM.
At the same time our careers advice in schools is failing to highlight the equal opportunities for both genders in these industries.
There’s clearly a huge difference between the way these subjects are treated in the UK compared to Russia.
Most of that difference can actually be traced back to the height of the Cold War, in the 1960s subjects like maths and the sciences were championed in Russia, ahead of languages or the humanities.
As a result between 1962 and 1964 some 40% of chemistry PhD’s in Russia went to women, compared to just 5% in the US (a meagre figure that event today has still only grown to around 35%).
Because of this Russia saw a generation of female leaders in STEM emerge – like Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space – whose work further inspired young girls to choose the subjects.
Maybe it’s time we learned a little from Russia’s good examples, let’s just hope it doesn’t take us 50 years to catch up.