STEM Needs True Equality: Addressing the Gender Bias in STEM
STEM is a common term for the science, technology, engineering, and math fields. Although according to the Census Bureau there has been an increase in female STEM workers from 1970 to 2019 there still exists a substantial gender gap in STEM fields. (AAUW) It is common for us to tell young girls that they can be anything in the world but as they grow up that narrative often seems to shift when they decide to enter the male dominated STEM fields. When it comes to women in the job fields, they only make up 28% of the STEM work force but make up almost half of the general workforce. (AAUW) The statistics are slowly growing but not nearly fast enough. This is not due to a lack of interest from females looking into getting into the fields but due to the gender bias in the industries. Women in STEM face gender bias in their fields through systems designed to cater to males, cultivation during school, and uncomfortable workplace environments.
The STEM fields are designed to cater to males and that creates masculine environments that are not comfortable for women. Due to this it is hard for girls and then women to thrive in their careers without having to portray themselves as masculine or as having masculine traits. According to an article published by Michigan State University, the author quotes a study by university scholars, "In a laboratory experiment, women who described themselves using masculine-like traits (assertive, independent, achievement oriented) were evaluated as more fitting for the job than those who emphasized female-like traits (warmth, supportiveness, nurturing)." (Henion and Ryan) This study shows that women must present themselves as in a masculine manor as the STEM fields do not care for or recognize traditionally feminine traits as being useful or accepted. Through Unconscious bias we ask women to be less like themselves and more like their male counterparts, which furthers the bias and gender gap that exists.
Instead of changing the narrative to include women we ask women to change themselves. A study was done by the University of Washington that states that a masculine environment conveys a stronger sense of belonging for males and encourages the interest and participation of boys to the detriment of the girls or women who may want to be involved (Galvin). We leave young girls and women feeling less than their male counterparts when we ask then to change themselves in order to pursue a passion in STEM and feel like they belong. That in turn does not culture an environment that allows females to grow, learn, and thrive. Often times, if one does not feel comfortable being themselves in an environment, they are very likely to not return to that environment; and that is what we are seeing happen in the STEM fields.
Part of the male domination in the STEM fields can be linked to stereotyping. What is it that you envision when you think of Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math? Typically, people think of STEM careers as being held by someone who is nerdy, socially awkward, and most importantly, male. This is further exacerbated by pop culture shows like The Big Bang Theory, The Flash, or Bones. These shows depict anyone in the STEM Fields as being stereotypically nerdy and not fitting in with "regular" people of different job fields. This is often different than the way girls and women see themselves and is deterring for those looking to enter STEM. In order to start to make a change in how people view STEM careers we need to work on dismantling the negative stereotypes around it that cause bias, whether conscious or unconscious.
Unconscious bias due to stereotypes also exists among teachers and professors. From a young age bias is placed on young girls that dissuades them from pursuing STEM Degrees in school. The article "The "Masculine" Culture of STEM Fields" discusses the issue of the attention paid to women vs men in STEM classes:
A recent study done by Joseph Cimpian and NYU researchers found that both men and women who have high achievements in STEM classes tend to enter math or science fields later on. However, while low-achieving men are still encouraged to enter STEM fields, only women who are top scorers in math and science continue to pursue careers in STEM. Thus, while men are greatly encouraged to enter STEM fields no matter their grades, only high-achieving women, who have demonstrated exemplary skills, receive the same support. This indicates that gender disparities in STEM fields are greatly influenced by the difference in attention that girls and boys receive. (Ren)
The study in reference shows that females are not given the same attention and chance as their male counterparts. One cause for this bias can be contributed to the "math brain myth". There is a longstanding myth amongst educators that boys have a predisposition to be better at math than their female classmates. "The myth of the math brain is one of the most self-destructive ideas in American education - research shows no innate cognitive biological differences between men and women in math (AAUW)." The bias created by this myth has no scientific backing and is instead caused by stereotypes and societal standards. The math brain myth has been negatively influencing how educators perceive the potential of girls by causing them to be seen as less than capable; thus, further creating an unnecessary gender gap in STEM.
In addition to the "math brain myth" creating a gap there is an incorrect belief that girls simply will not enjoy STEM work. In a study that Author Tubbs writes about when asked about computer science 51% of participants thought that girls had less interest than boys while only 14% thought that girls had more interest. That is a very wide, gendered gap in thinking. In recent years there has been a push to create space for young girls in STEM in an effort to encourage them to join the job force in their future. Instructors from Techgirlz say that these classes are useful and after each session about 80% of the attendees are more interested or open to a career in technology (Tubbs). That is because these classes are run without stereotypes and bias that would otherwise hinder the relationship that young girls build with STEM. There have been several studies that tested the interest of students towards STEM topics when placed in a learning environment that is designed after stereotypes verses an environment where the décor and attire of the teachers are more neutral or inclusive and they go on to show that while male interest in the topic did not fall when the environment is more neutral, female interest in the topic increased. That goes to show that the interest is linked to the environment and cultivation of the female students. Also, if you take into consideration that in 1984 37% of computer science degrees were going towards women compared to 2014 where that number had dropped to only 18% (Ren) all while the women joining the work force has not lowered and is fact higher according to the census bureau you will see that it is not that women do not have an interest but something externally that is driving the women away or causing them to stay away from STEM from the start. Technology was still relatively new in the 80's and many significant contributions were made by women.
In addition to environment, lack of role models for young girls in STEM let the bias creep in. Many people do not learn of the amazing female role models that exist in STEM such as Marie Curie, the first female recipient of a Nobel Prize, or Rosalind Franklin, and her discovery towards DNA. Women in Stem are hardly talked about or celebrated in the media. As a media driven society, representation of women in STEM is incredibly important. Giving young girls access to role models that are female and who helped change the course of their fields will help young girls develop a since of belonging and interest in those fields. With inclusivity and celebration of women in STEM we can start to close the gap that is created at a young age for girls and help foster a healthy relationship towards the STEM.
While helping get young girls into stem will help close the Gender gap at a young age, we need to also focus on how to retain women through obtaining their degrees and in the workforce. Negative beliefs about women in STEM and negative treatment of women in STEM careers have harmful effects on women who are in the workplace now as well as young women who are studying STEM disciplines. (Harrington, et al.) Many young women complain that they have a harder time being taken seriously by professors and have even had college counselors try to offer the "easier" degrees without prompting. The lack of attention and cultivation towards young women causes them to lack the confidence to continue to pursue or enter STEM fields. Which ultimately causes them to become male- dominated or masculine (Ren). When educators do not help nurture the passion for STEM in women it does not make them feel safe, comfortable, or like they belong. Causing them to often switch majors into one that they do feel a sense of community in and that they are not discriminated against due to their gender.
Once in the work field women face discrimination simply based on their gender. According to the infographic provided by the PEW Research Center, 505 of women have faced discrimination at work due to their gender and 20% have said their gender has made it harder for them to succeed (Pew Research Center). This is a shockingly high number that helps make it clear why women have a hard time staying in their chosen job fields. Research like this is also scary for those looking to enter the STEM field as a career. These numbers are an issue and highlight just how hard it is to feel comfortable in your own skin at work. Gender discrimination can create a feeling of imposter syndrome in women who work in STEM as they often feel like they do not belong there, and they do not know why they are there. It is discouraging for them to come to work every day knowing what they must face. Women in STEM also say that they have experienced discrimination in any of the 8 forms at a higher percentage (50%) than women in non-STEM jobs (41%) and significantly more than men in STEM (19%) (Pew Research Center).
Experience of workplace discrimination and gender inequalities are more prevalent amongst women working in technology and engineering positions; those working in places that men outnumber women significantly; and women with higher level degrees that likely work in higher level positions compared to other women in STEM (Funk and Parker). This often drives women to leave their field of study and find employment elsewhere in other fields. Sometimes they move to other STEM fields but more often than not they leave STEM all together. In order to keep women in STEM post-graduation we need to also focus on creating a safe work environment and addressing the gendered bias they face. Companies, especially STEM or Tech based companies, can work with all departments to create a better sense of community among their professionals. By creating a safe workspace for women in an already masculine field you can help with retention.
It is not enough to get young girls into STEM just to let bias and stereotyping drive them out of the workforce with unsafe environments. You have to continually work wo include them in all aspects of STEM and celebrate the women who can be role models for the next generation. Women provide a perspective that is unique in a male dominated field. In fact, when asked to list reasons for increasing gender diversity in the workplace, 46% of American people say that it is important to consider the perspectives that gender diversity offers that can contribute to the overall company success (Funk and Parker). Women often times have a different approach to problem solving and if effectively working together you can use that to help further a task, a project, and even a company. Gaining a new perspective and encouraging participation from women in STEM is the best way to move forward as a society and create new advances.
Women, young and grown, deserve a fair and unbiased shot in the STEM Fields. By addressing the masculine culture, better cultivating the youth, and working towards safe work environments we can give that to them. Working to eliminate the bias that makes it hard for them to enter and stay in the fields that they are passionate about could lead to a better workplace in STEM for all and even better advancements for all. With equality in STEM new role models will emerge, more young girls will be interested and enter the future workforce, and the cycle will start to heal itself and need less outside influence to fight for the equality withing STEM. Society as a whole will start to benefit from the fight for equality amongst gender bias in STEM.
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Although according to the Census Bureau
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Women in STEM face gender bias
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Instead of changing the narrative to include women we ask women to change themselves.
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we can start to close the gap
Mention how National Women's month helps close the gap by shining a light on female STEM accomplishments.
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