By Lindsay Aldrich
Names like Ada Lovelace, Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin, and Gertrude Elion stand out in the history of scientific discovery as some of the most influential women in STEM. They are acknowledged for their accomplishments, such as creating the basis for computer programing, discovering the theory of chemical radioactivity, contributing to the discovery of DNA, and formulating dozens of pharmaceutical drugs against cancer, HIV, and other diseases. However, they are also importantly celebrated as triumphant women who overcame the hurdles of historically male-dominated STEM fields.
These areas have been overwhelmingly male for centuries. With men historically leading many industrialized societies, the organization of science as a profession also fell under men’s control. This limited women in their opportunities to participate in formal scientific research for centuries. However, the civil rights movement, along with feminist waves in the 1960s and 1970s, began to increase women’s opportunities. Since then, social, educational, and professional equality have been increasing alongside the emergence of specific efforts to encourage more women to enter STEM fields. To illustrate this shift, at the start of this new era in 1970, women constituted only 7% of the STEM workforce. But as more initiatives to inspire women to enter STEM increased, women constituted 26% of the STEM workforce by 2011 (US Census Bureau, 2017). This number has been slowly increasing since and the percentage of women in the STEM workforce was 29% in 2016 (National Girls Collaborative Project, 2018).
While we have all been acknowledging this wonderful and significant increase in the number of women in STEM, the reality is that women are not participating in all STEM fields equally. For example, in 2011 when women constituted 26% of the entire STEM workforce, they represented 61% of all social scientists, 47% of all mathematicians, and 41% of all physical and life scientists - all significantly over the average of 26% of the entire STEM workforce. On the other hand, women only constituted 27% of computer scientists, and only 13% of engineers, naming engineering the least common STEM field for women (US Census Bureau, 2017).
There are lots of reasons why women are still struggling to enter STEM, especially computer science and engineering, from stereotypes to early education to professional experiences. Stereotypes about women being much more social while men are more logical come from a male-dominated narrative and influence the professional roles we place men and women into. This stereotype may explain why women have been able to enter the social and life sciences with less resistance compared to computer science and engineering. However, this idea that men are more successful than women at logic and analytics can be partially explained by the fact that our education system has been based on historically male-dominated schools of thought. In many schools, STEM lessons are often presented to students in ways that may be tailored towards the way that men’s brains typically process information in contrast to the way that women’s brains do - a problem that has been shown to be easily fixable with slight teaching tweaks.
For example, research has shown that boys with more developed spatial skills outperform girls with greater skills in other areas such as perceptual speed. However, when adjusting STEM courses to strengthen spatial skills and rely on additional skills such as perceptual speed, the retention rate of girls in STEM significantly increased (Hill, Corbett, & Rose, 2010). Unfortunately, these false stereotypes that women are less capable of analytical tasks are then also reinforced by a lack of abundant, successful role models of women in STEM. When women do enter the STEM workforce they often experience workplace discrimination, bias, and unequal treatment in terms of hiring, promotion, retainment, support, pay, and more (Hill, Corbett, & Rose, 2010). Overall, studies have found that approximately 50% of women in STEM experience gender-related discrimination. However, fields such as computer science and engineering, with the lowest percentages of women involved, have gender discrimination rates of nearly 80% (Funk & Parker, 2018). These cyclical negative outcomes all reinforce the false notion that women are inherently not meant for STEM.
Fortunately, there is exciting promise in the demographics of current students. More women than ever are majoring in, earning bachelor’s degrees in, and earning doctorate degrees in STEM with the hopes of entering the STEM workforce. The increase of women entering STEM fields provides additional role models who may inspire even more women to embrace interests in STEM. Similarly, more women in STEM promises potential systematic change in the way women in STEM are treated in terms of education, work experience, and support. Overall, women are continuing to prove triumphant in their academic achievements and personal victories in science.
Funk, C., & Parker, K. (2018, January 09). Women in STEM see more gender disparities at work, especially those in computer jobs, majority-male workplaces. Retrieved from http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2018/01/09/women-in-stem-see-more-gender-disparities-at-work-especially-those-in-computer-jobs-majority-male-workplaces/
Hill, C., Corbett, C., & Rose, A. S. (2010). Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Washington, DC: American Association of University Women.
National Girls Collaborative Project. (2018). Statistics. Retrieved from https://ngcproject.org/statistics
US Census Bureau. (2017, January 15). Women's Employment in Science, Tech, Engineering and Math Jobs Slowing. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2013/cb13-162.html