Gender and Solar Car Teams


Solar Team Twente, led by Irene van den Hof, arrives at the World Solar Challenge 2015 finish line in 2nd place (photo: Anthony Dekker)

As a keen follower of international solar car racing, it’s interesting to explore the so-called “Gender-Equality Paradox” in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (see Stoet and Geary, 2018) as it relates to solar car teams – although I realise that this is a controversial subject.

In countries with high gender equality, such as Sweden, female participation in the STEM professions is paradoxically low. In part, this seems to be due to the fact that young women with STEM skills and interests often have other skills and interests as well, and these drive their educational and career choices (and within STEM fields, women appear to preferentially choose medicine over engineering). One can hardly force women to make other choices, though!

Solar car racing is in some ways engineering at its most intense – a difficult challenge requiring a substantial sacrifice of free time (much like an engineering start-up company). In the chart below, I plot the UN Gender Inequality Index for various countries against the average percentage of women in the engineering segment of solar car teams from those countries (I include team leaders in the count, but not dedicated media or public relations personnel). The colour of the dots for each nation indicate whether team leaders are mostly women (pink) or mostly men (blue).

The results are not statistically very significant (p = 0.05 and 0.09 for the two coefficients at the individual team level), but there is an interesting inverted parabolic fit here. For countries with high gender equality (Sweden, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands), only about 6.7% of the engineering segment of solar car teams is female. This is compared to 11.3% for other countries. On the other hand, Germany and the Netherlands do have mostly female team leaders.

In part, these results may reflect the fact that when a team attempts to make an optimum assignment of people to roles, the best people to carry out public relations and leadership roles are often the female team members (some people have suggested psychometric reasons for this). In fact, women are exactly twice as likely to be team leaders as you would expect based on the composition of the engineering segment of teams.

Obviously this small-scale study doesn’t settle anything, but it does raise some interesting questions for further investigation. And, of course, it would be fatal to believe that the man or woman building the car’s suspension was doing a more worthwhile job than the man or woman raising the sponsorship money that the team needs to survive. Success requires being good at everything, and that requires a diverse team.

Edit: This analysis may have missed a few women who were not included on team web pages.


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