On the "Women in STEM" page of the Office of Science and Technology Policy's website, a quote by President Obama floats above a photo of molecular biologist Lydia Villa-Komaroff. The quote states:
One of the things that I really strongly believe in is that we need to have more girls interested in math, science, and engineering. We’ve got half the population that is way underrepresented in those fields and that means that we’ve got a whole bunch of talent…not being encouraged the way they need to.But, wait. Another quote adjacent to Villa-Komaroff's photo mentions the prejudice and discouragement she overcame. Which is the main issue: lack of interest or gender discrimination? More importantly, why have years of initiatives and campaigns failed to ameliorate the problem?
One possible reason, apart from two possiblities already mentioned, and thus unaffected by established initiatives, is that social conditioning to be perfect makes women abandon STEM courses in college. Women tend to leave tougher-graded, lucrative majors when they receive bad grades, while men do not. Also, many men seem to think women get discouraged too easily upon entering the workforce. However, their advice to women often reinforces gender roles and stereotypes, belittles women's technical skills, and ignores reports of sexism.
Motivational news articles like this one seek to counter discouragement and lack of interest below the college level, pushing young women to follow through. However, interviewers often gloss over the "prove yourself" trials and teasing by male classmates. Women are often vulnerable to discouragement precisely because of implicit biases. Certain STEM fields are associated with natural brilliance, which is erroneously thought to be a trait women cannot possess. Many people are socialized to believe that women succeed based on hard work, and that men often succeed based on an additional in-born intellectual talent. It becomes clear that perceived lack of interest and discouragement are often the product of society's refusal to reject outdated, sexist beliefs. An earlier post on this blog shares that perspective as well.
Beyond any self-discouragement steering women away from STEM programs or jobs, reports of sexism show that aggressive discrimination exists in these fields. No television ad campaign, college career counseling, or increase in salary can persuade one to stay in such a toxic culture. A recent survey of 557 female STEM researchers revealed that 93% of the white respondents experienced gender bias. Unsurprisingly, it was worse for women of color, with the entire 100% saying they reported experiencing it. Furthermore, racial stereotyping seems to be prevalent. Latinas are regularly mistaken for janitors and called "crazy." Black women are expected to be assertive, but not "angry." Asian women get push-back if they do not act traditionally feminine. Finally, one-third of the surveyed women had perceived being sexually harassed at work.
When many men have difficulty believing gender bias exists in STEM, and racial stereotypes seem slow to die, initiatives such as the White House's will not meet their goals. Thrusting the burden onto women, yet again, to overcome all obstacles with tenacity is a myopic and losing strategy.