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.

Making America great again?

I have pointed out before that I am a child of the American post-Sputnik boom in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education, which spread to other countries through books like the ones below, but which faded away in the US over the decades that followed.

I have also previously written about the Times Higher Education “top 100” university list for Engineering and Technology and its relationship to solar-car racing. The USA has 31 of the institutions on the list, making it still the world leader in STEM. But things change when we look at the number of such institutions per million of national population (plotted in the bar chart below). Then the USA ranks only 13th. The top six countries/regions become Hong Kong (with 4 institutions), Singapore (with NTU and NUS), Sweden (with 3 institutions), Australia (with 7 institutions), Switzerland (with 2 institutions), and the Netherlands (with Delft, Eindhoven, and Twente).

So where might one create the next Silicon Valley?

  • In Ontario, Canada, perhaps (near Toronto and the University of Waterloo).
  • Or in the vicinity of Melbourne, Australia (near Monash University and the University of Melbourne).
  • Or in the vicinity of Sydney, Australia (near UNSW and the University of Sydney).
  • Or in Hong Kong (near HK Polytechnic University, HK University of Science and Technology, the University of HK, and the Chinese University of HK).
  • Or in southeast England (near Imperial College London, University College London, Oxford University, and the University of Cambridge).
  • Or in the southern Netherlands (near Delft, Eindhoven, Twente, and Leuven across the border).

The San Francisco Bay Area has to work hard to compete with those locations! If the US truly wants to lead the world in STEM, it may need to lift its game a little. And a nation cannot be “great” in the modern era without excellence in STEM.