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IRINA KALABIKHINA ON STEM EDUCATION

IRINA KALABIKHINA ON STEM EDUCATION

Irina Kalabikhina is a Doctor of Economics, Acting Head of Population Department, Faculty of Economics, MSU. 

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math programs. The STEM educational programs were established to attract people to the exact sciences for the development of the country's competitiveness in this field, particularly during the era of the arms race in the middle of the 20th century. Each leading country invests much in the development of information technologies, however, not money but people and their education play a primary role in the process of computerization. The EWC journalists discussed a number of issues concerning this field with Irina Kalabikhina. In her interview, she shared her opinion on the necessity of STEM programs for young people in Russia, the potential of adult women, politicians securing their immortality and ‘the renaissance of patriarchy’, killing Russian men. 

Why are women being actively attracted to STEM education? Do these programs suit Russia? 

– A Chinese proverb says: “Women hold up half the sky”. If our modern education technologies cover not all people but only men, we will have not 2 millions of future engineers, scientists and inventors but only one. Certainly, not all students will choose these sectors. But all those who will, will become great professionals. With the increasing number of such people, our country has more chances to have skillful scientists, engineers and inventors. In addition, not all men want and can cope with those spheres and achieve success there. So, why should we lose half of the potential we have? Other countries understood that and now develop all their educational programs considering women. Without women and realizing their potential, the country will not improve its economic development, defense capabilities and space programs. 

In the Soviet Union, this idea was understood well. Serious work was carried out to promote youth in the natural sciences. School programs were created with an emphasis on natural science subjects. Institutes and universities with a real research incubator were established. Girls studied in such schools, girls were involved in such universities. The Soviet screens demonstrated the image of a woman scientist, the image of a women leader. 

I do not want to talk about the reasons for the persisting unequal representation of women and men in these sectors. I want to talk about women’s success, about their high-tech leadership. The West started copying this including technological school programs and ideas for the advancement of women into science. The West learned from us. Unfortunately, in the 1990s many things in Russia including scientific development and high-tech industries changed for the worse. At the state level, Russia forgot not only about women's programs in education, but also about the need to educate geniuses in the natural sciences. The USA and European countries, on the contrary, kept on developing our ideas. They created various STEM types. There were called SMET, METS, STEMTEC (with technologies), STEMM (with medicine), STREM (with robotization), AMSEE (with entrepreneurship), etc. They were aimed at the development of special school programs, creation of post-graduation and master-level programs, at involving girls and young women in these fields of activity. We must return to our ideas, after a long break in the state support of girls in natural science education programs and support of the programs themselves. Once again, we must become leaders in the creation of the world's scientific and technological elite. 

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 – One of the components of the STEM program is mathematics. It is taught in our schools at a high level. Do we need to strengthen it? Won’t it scare away young people? 

 – Mathematics does not scare anyone away. It is a tool that unites all disciplines, not just natural sciences. Today, economics, demography, sociology, psychology can’t properly develop without mathematical disciplines. Young people have become more pragmatic. They are scared away not by the complexity of the disciplines they learn but by the absence of quality knowledge that is in demand in the labor market. For example, young people know that the only industry that will surely grow over the next 20 years is IT. They want to live comfortably, to have spare money, to be in demand, and to have an interesting job. 

I visited this year's Datafest held by Mail.ru. This is a popular platform, young people amount to 90% of its participants, and there are more boys than girls there.  One can seldom see such interested young people who go there by train from different regions to join scientific festivals. They absorb new knowledge about trends in programming, working with big data, and neural nets. Each of them wants to try his hand at these fields. We will attract them, not scare them away. 

Lomonosov Moscow State University always understood that it should look for young talents, engage them in studies and support. Everybody knows about olympiads and universiads, summer and winter schools held by MSU and aimed at looking for talented children including those from other regions. Now there is the Centre of National Intellectual Reserve of MSU. But such measures must be introduced everywhere in the country at all educational levels. This is one of the keys to resurrection of Russia’s leadership in terms of technologies. 

Does mathematics turn out to be a kind of intergenerational language? 

– Indeed. It is a universal language. It links disciplines and people around the world, serves as the basis of interdisciplinary approaches that will contribute to future through scientific discoveries. The second modern language is the language of informational technologies. Any humanitarian institution today needs a programmer, a data specialist, in order to do modern qualitative research. 

What gender stereotypes today prevent girls from getting technical education? 

– They are standard and well known by everybody. Those stereotypes say that mathematics, physics and engineering are not women’s fields and that the woman’s place is at home with her family. At home they are often being persuaded to choose not high-tech and natural-scientific professions but more simple ones. There is an opinion that women can go in science considered men’s field of activity only in search of a spouse, even if they clearly have a talent for mastering mathematical and other natural science disciplines. This problem is relevant even for countries where women entered the labor market a hundred years ago and those states supporting a model of dual-earner families for centuries. As a result, the stereotypes are still strong, they obstruct not only women but also men, families and states. Women feel incapable and are afraid of trying. 

Americans got rid of stereotyped statements and deeds about the abilities of women. As a result, women contributed to the latest sharp increase in such fields, as patents in chemistry, bioactive medicine, semiconductor devices, furniture, data processing, surgery, digital systems and electrical machines. From 1990 to 2010, the proportion of patents registered by women has doubled. Innovative and entrepreneurial activity also grows through recognizing the opportunities of women. From 1980 to 2010, the share of trademarks owned by women also doubled and reached 33%. The most popular industries for women include advertising, clothing, education, scientific and technical services, and design. The consciousness of society has a critical mass of rejection of stereotypes, and, as a result, women have been ‘admitted’ to innovative and high-tech spheres. Europe experiences the same process. This is beneficial from the point of view of pragmatic nations. 

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Now the Faculty of Economics of MSU under the supervision of its dean Alexander Auzan implements a project on educating elite students. The project is a special group of high academic load. This is a mind-incubator giving remarkable results. For example, several students were invited by the world's leading universities to continue their education after graduation. In 2016, our best young scientists and graduate students were awarded with scholarship. And there were almost only girls among them. By the way, the Faculty of Economics of MSU has almost equal representation of girls and boys despite the fact that its program has many mathematical disciplines. The analysis of the progress of our students says that girls often study better. The question is how to help the boys. 

Because of stereotypes on the scale of the state we lose the power of women’s minds. I believe nothing can prevent a girl from being a wife, a mother and a great mathematician at the same time. To make it possible, the state must cultivate conditions for combining parenthood and employment and overcome those ancient stereotypes. We must demand creating conditions for combining parenting and work for women and men. In this regard, let us support the creation of the image of successful women in science. 

Today we set ourselves the task to restore the technological superiority in many directions. But we must not forget about women. We must consider the issue of women’s education now, otherwise we will miss our chance to turn them into professionals and lose entire generations. 

Let's not forget about the demographic factor. The population of Russia is getting older. In 2017-2026, the share of young people aged 20-34 will decrease from 22 to 16%. We should give the young all opportunities for study, irrespective of their gender, nationality, standard of living and other factors. We need good programs like STEM. Then we will get the best result: many clever boys and girls. Let's recall the Strategy for the Restoration of High-Tech Industries in Russia and the task to increase labor productivity. 

There are 2.5 times more elderly women than elderly men. Is this another reason for encouraging women to master new technologies? 

– There is a big gap in number of women and men aged 33. Before this age, the gender ratio is somehow observed. But now the number of women gradually increases. Unfortunately, men often die in working age. And Russia is the leader in the world in the difference of men’s and women’s life expectancy. Often this is caused by alcohol consumption, unwillingness to go to the doctor on time, stress from a tough ‘male’ role. Therefore, by the retirement age, women often remain alone. At the same time, life expectancy in Russia is growing. 50-year-old Russians are to live 30 more years, and 70-year-old ones are to live almost 15 more years. But what to do at such age? Will those people want to go back to the field of technology, IT, mathematics? This is a difficult question, but we must try to consult with these people. 

One thing is now absolutely clear. In the nearest future, it will be impossible to do without modern technologies. Even in everyday life, even in ‘simple’ jobs. So, women do not want to be outsiders, they will join this lifestyle. 

There is the term ‘age of innovators’ usually considered as the age of 25-44 years. By 2030, the share of people of this age in Russia will decrease from 31 to 24%. Such an alarming forecast… But I believe that this is just a myth. Everything depends on the education system. If we change it, will we be able to provide our population aged 40-50 with quality education teaching how to use modern technologies? If yes, this period of life will be like ‘the second crop of strawberries’. 

We must counter the stereotypes that only innovators can be only young. In Europe, there are universities providing people of any age with education. There they have master-level programs for students aged 50 and older. So, why don’t we do the same thing? In our country, there are mortgage payments for people up to 65 years old. The reason for that is understanding that people live long and give money back. If elderly can pay mortgage, they will surely be able to study. We are to face colossal changes in humanity very soon.  Therefore, we must involve the mature population in the economy and in social life.

Do you mean struggling against ageism? 

– Yes. If you can’t find a job at the age of 50, and the companies say they are not interested in the people of such age, it is strange. 60-years-old used to be considered old persons. Now persons aged over 80 are considered old ones. All pension systems are designed maximum for 15 years of providing people with money. No pension system will bear a longer period. People aged over 50 can’t feel well if they understand they are not needed. That is why we must overcome all stereotypes. This is possible thanks to governmental programs. Bread and circuses are good, but provision of jobs is necessary as well. 

Are there countries in which women are actively involved in the exact and natural sciences? If yes, how did this happen? Can we adopt this practice in Russia? 

– Certainly. I was surprised that over 10 years the world has changed a lot in this issue. Europe lagged behind with its 30% of women in STEM education. The Arab world had 50%. So, why is women’s education paid so much attention to in the East? I have my own argument: they are trying to protect themselves from migrants. It is better to use the country’s women as an additional force than do it with people from other countries. They began to do this without division by industry. That is why a woman there can master any profession. Europeans are now far behind in this field. What way will we choose? In fact, Japanese universities are not given funding today if they do not have enough women involved in scientific research. 

Is it a stereotype that in the East everything is backward and women constantly sit at home? 

– Yes, it is. We just have a habit of constantly looking at the West. STEM education is like a breath of fresh air for Russia. And we need not be afraid, we must run ahead, recognizing our programs of the last century as a good undertaking in this matter. 

I heard that in the East, many women receive education but then do not use it. However, they continue to give education. It is motivated by the fact that women are mainly raising children, i.e. educate the nation, and they must be developed. 

– I completely agree with you about the usefulness of educated parents. But these are slightly different tasks. I am inclined to create in Russia an educational system that will function for women not only to educate intelligent children, but also to take the leading position in the technological competition. We can do it and we must. Russia is a big country, it has big ambitions. In addition, there is complicated geopolitical situation in the world now. Thus, we face state tasks not only at the family level. 

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Would you call yourself a feminist? 

– I don’t like ‘isms’. I do not recognize them.  In addition, I do not want any labels on myself. I have my own system of values. I don’t flinch when I hear the word ‘feminism’. But when I’m often asked about this, I answer: “If it's convenient for you to say so, then I'm a feminist, because I want to promote freedom in choosing a life path for women and men”. Some people have wrong associations with this word.

How can you explain to people what is feminism? Just ask them if they remain silent when their daughter’s husband beats her? "No!" replied Azerbaijani general once. Then I said then: “Well, then you are a feminist”. 

Some men use the term ‘reverse sexism’. For example, they say people should think about their rights as well. For example, in cases they are forced to be strong, successful, to support the family. How would you comment on this? 

– As a demographer, I can say that male super-mortality, especially in the 1990s, is caused by ‘reverse sexism’. The artificial separation of people into “breadwinners” and “guardians of the hearth” was proposed. But now it is impossible in terms of dual-earner families. Now we can watch a new wave of ‘the renaissance of patriarchy’. And we can only guess what it leads to considering the fact that the previous one led to male super-mortality. 

What impact can women have on society if they occupy more positions in the scientific and political fields? 

– The more people have quality modern education in the promising segments of the labor market, the more the output is in terms of economic growth and prosperity of the country. This concerns all fields of activity. We shouldn’t prevent half of Russia’s population from realizing their potential in the advanced fields. In Brazil, there is a football ground in every yard. The result is the country's foremost positions in football. Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a multi-millionaire businessman and politician, introduced chess teaching in schools of the Republic of Kalmykia. In 2016, Dinara Dordzhieva won bronze in the World Junior Championship and was very close to the first place in her rating. That is why it is worth introducing STEM education programs and encouraging girls and women to join these fields. After that the stereotypes about women will disappear. And the new issue regarding STEM is education and employment of mature and elderly people, who are mainly women.

I will tell you more. Government must offer programs of breakthrough advance education in the modern changing world standing on the threshold of another technological revolution. And government must also think how to collect the ‘second crop of strawberries’ in an aging society. Thus, government will secure its immortality. 

Agata Korovina, news agency of the Eurasian Women’s Community

Translated by Nikolay Gavrilov


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