By Eliza Insley
Although in the past decade there has been a rapid increase in women enrolling in STEM programs, there is still the looming shadow of sexism.
In 2009, only 24 percent of STEM positions were held by women, according to a study done by the U.S. Department of Commerce. The study suggests this is because of a lack of female role models, as well as gender stereotyping and workplace biases that create an unwelcome environment.
Gender stereotypes, such as the idea that women are the weaker gender, are accepted as young as six years old. According to an article from Associated Press: “As a result, believing they are not as gifted as boys, girls tend to shy away from demanding majors and fields, leading to big differences in aspirations and career choices between men and women. These stereotypes discourage women’s pursuit of many prestigious careers; that is, women are underrepresented in fields whose members cherish brilliance.”
Elementary school has a significant role in shaping how girls perform in math and science in high school. The slightest difference in the way teachers behave toward their students can affect how they view math and science.
Research from the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that some teachers assume boys just naturally excel at math and, therefore, grade their tests slightly more generously than they grade girls’ tests. Some teachers also take some boys’ rowdy and assertive nature as a sign that they are more enthusiastic for learning math, and the teachers then call on the boys more frequently. This could discourage girls from participating more actively.
The American Association of University Women, AAUW, is a nonprofit organization that does a lot of work and research around gender stereotypes and especially around stereotypes and inequality in STEM.
This blog post on AAUW talks about how stereotypes affect girls’ performances in math: “Stereotype threat arises in situations where a negative stereotype is relevant to evaluating performance. A female student taking a math test experiences an extra cognitive and emotional burden of worry related to the stereotype that women are not good at math. A reference to this stereotype, even one as subtle as taking the test in a room of mostly men, can adversely affect her test performance. When the burden is removed, however, her performance will improve. Stereotype threat is one compelling explanation for why women remain underrepresented in STEM fields.”
STEM is becoming more and more valuable and relevant and, in many STEM fields, there has been an increase in women. According to this graphic from AAUW, there are substantially more women in Biological Sciences and Chemistry and Material Sciences.
However, Computer Science and Mathematics, as well as Engineering, are suffering greatly from a lack of women.
There has been a 9 percent decrease in women in Computer Science and Mathematics. Women only make up less than one-third of people in STEM jobs. The 9 percent decrease is a consequential blow to Computer Sciences, but many universities, such as the University of California at Berkeley have changed the way they teach and market the class. The redesign and re-marketing of the class wasn’t specifically targeted to gain more female representation, but the changes surprisingly attracted a large amount of female students to the usually male-dominated class.
Another reason there is an absence of women in the STEM fields is because of a lack of strong female role models in these fields.
Kene Nwosu is a substitute science teacher for ninth and tenth grade at Summit Preparatory Charter High School, covering for a teacher on maternity leave.
When asked about how lack of female STEM role models is affecting today’s youth, Mr. Nwosu said, “When you don’t see representation of your kind, whether it be gender, race, manner of thinking, or religion, that could give you a sense that you don’t belong.”
Astrophysicist Dr. Elisa Quintana works at the Goddard Space Flight Center where she studies exoplanets and is working on TESS, Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, a program set to launch in 2018 to survey exoplanets.
Dr. Quintana grew up not even considering astrophysics until she was much older, unlike many of her peers who had known they wanted to pursue science from a young age, often because their parents were scientists.
“When I was in college at UC, San Diego, my physics adviser was former astronaut Sally Ride. She was very passionate about STEM outreach, especially for young girls. I also loved how she just exuded strength, I know she had to be strong to be among the first females selected for the astronaut program. She definitely had a large influence on my decisions to pursue a career in astrophysics,” Dr. Quintana stated in email.
Women are extremely outnumbered in STEM fields, but there are many people working to change that, such as the AAUW. Making young girls feel that they would be accepted and welcomed into a field they are passionate about is a really important factor in getting more female representation in those fields. But what about actually getting hired for STEM jobs?
In the AAUW’s latest data report on STEM, they stated, “One study asked science faculty to evaluate résumés that were identical except for the candidates’ names. The researchers found that scientists were more likely to choose a male candidate over an identical female candidate for a hypothetical job opening at a lab. Both female and male scientists also offered a higher salary to the male candidate and were more willing to offer him
mentoring opportunities. In another study, potential employers systematically underestimated the mathematical performance of women compared with men, resulting in the hiring of lower-performing men over higher-performing women for mathematical work.”
This creates an unwelcoming environment for these women working in STEM, making them underestimate their own abilities, which could cause an overall decline in productivity and quality of work because they believe they are not as skilled or as smart as their male counterparts.
The stakes are high for women, who risk being left out of an important sector of the U.S. economy. James Brown, the executive director of the STEM Education Coalition in Washington, D.C., cited the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2014 Spring Jobs Report to explain: “The future of the economy is in STEM, that’s where the jobs of tomorrow will be.”