Friday, January 30, 2015

Why women continue to be underrepresented in STEM

Getting more women in America to pursue an education and career in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) remains challenging, despite years of various efforts aimed at boosting the number of women in these fields. With the White House pointing out that women earn 33 percent more in STEM than in non-STEM positions, and have a smaller wage gap relative to men in STEM jobs, one would expect a recruitment and retention problem to be nonexistent. Why are women still balking at becoming scientists and engineers?

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. 


Sara Popovich said...

I agree that stating that women need more encouragement than men to enter STEM professions without acknowledging the additional challenges that women face is harmful. The discrimination and discouragement toward women entering these fields is precisely the reason that the encouragement the President described is now necessary. This needs to be reframed as a field in which discouragement and discrimination toward women need to be removed.

Damon Alimouri said...

It's almost unbelievable when you think about it. If you scrutinize history you are hard pressed to find famous women in almost any field of human creation (science or art). Moreover, when women do happen to enter a scientific or artistic avenue, they are generally given pre-determined sexist gender roles that they must fulfill, or suffer being marginalized.

A woman, it appears, in any field, must first be a woman and then an artist or a scientist. A man is simply human, and is. Of course, here I speak very abstractly. The question is how can we alter the pattern of things so that women artists or scientists will simply be seen as artists or scientists, not as women scientists or artists. How do we remove hyphenation?

Jessica S. said...

Damon, that is a great point you've brought up. How women are seen first as women, and their professional accomplishments are secondary. I struggle with how we can eliminate the pattern you described. Unfortunately, it's an easy, accepted route (sexist actions/thinking) to "other" an entire group, and reserve resources and prestige for the individuals stooping to such tactics. As long as there are enough people willing to buy into all this, using sexist and racist stereotypes will not be discouraged to the degree necessary for substantial changes.

Hart Ku said...

A couple of days ago, The New York Times published an article talking bout the harm of discouraging young girls from STEM fields. It mentions one study where elementary school teachers sometimes subconsciously grade young girls harsher than they grade boys in maths and sciences. They also actively encourage boys more than they do girls in those subjects. When the exams are graded anonymously, young girls often outperform young boys.

Ahva said...
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Ahva said...

I agree with you that many initiatives that seek to encourage women to enter into STEM fields do not sufficiently address the implicit biases against women interested in these fields. For many women interested in STEM fields, these biases can be traced back to childhood in the subtle messages that their teachers and parents give them. As Hart's comment demonstrates, teachers have subconscious biases when grading girls versus boys in math and science courses. As for parental biases -- for example, parents tend to buy their boys legos and their girls dolls. Boys create buildings and train tracks and model airplanes, while girls dress their dolls and brush their hair. I've also witnessed some of my adult relatives discourage their female children from entering into STEM fields (engineering, mainly) for fear that their children will have lower opportunities for success in a male-dominated field, making female underrepresentation in STEM fields a self-perpetuating problem.