Gender gap in STEM
Updated: Jul 24, 2020
At 1 pm on a lethargic spring day, my heavy eyelids closed momentarily, pulling my head down with them. The clock’s rhythmic ticking lulled me to sleep as my teacher’s voice droned on about monotonous physics equations. It was no surprise I couldn’t keep my eyes open in class. A short nap and a missed lesson later, my teacher asked us to name our favorite scientists. “Knowing the history of science allows us to understand the current state of science,” he said, as he paced from the right side to the left side of the room. I immediately knew my answer: Marie Curie. Along with being the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the first person to win it twice, she made groundbreaking discoveries in my favorite subject: radioactivity.
My teacher started with the tall boy who sat in the front. “Albert Einstein,” the boy said quickly and confidently. A collective groan resounded in the room; half of the students had to think of a new scientist. “Isaac Newton,” “Charles Darwin,” “Pythagoras,” “Nikola Tesla,” “Galileo Galilei,” “John Dalton,” “Robert Hooke,” “Johannes Kepler,” “Leonardo da Vinci,” “Hippocrates,” and “Stephen Hawking” were all shouted out one by one. When my turn came around, I said “Marie Curie” proudly, since she embodied everything I wanted from my career. Winning a Nobel Prize would be an honor, but my biggest goal as an aspiring scientist was to contribute some never-before-seen research to the world. “Interesting choice,” my teacher commented simply before moving on.
It wasn’t until much later, during my classes at university, that I realized what was wrong with this picture. Think about it yourself; how many female scientists can you name? That number is probably less than the amount of male scientists my classmates could recall. The unfortunate reality is, since the current gender gap in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields is so large, the ratio of male to female scientists may not change much unless we take quick and decisive action.
For every 100 undergraduate STEM students, 28 are female, and only 4-5 of those females are engineers (The STEM Gap, AAUW). STEM is extremely male-dominated, which turns women away from these seemingly inflexible and exclusive fields (Berwick). In several studies, when children were asked to draw a scientist, girls were twice as likely to draw men, and boys only drew men (Steele). Unconsciously, we think of STEM as more masculine and humanities as more feminine. Men are typically viewed as more independent and assertive, and these traits line up with what people believe makes a scientist successful (Twitter). Since women apparently lack these traits, they are seen as unfit for a STEM career.
You would think that older students, like high school physics kids, would understand these implicit biases and work to dispel them. I used to think like you as well. I was one of four girls in my 22-student physics class. We never worked with each other because our teacher hoped to promote diversity in group work by assigning us to different groups. The idea was noble, but it did not work how he wanted it to. The ideals of being assertive and independent are so valued in science that each member worked individually despite being a part of the group. Whenever I tried to point out to my group that their calculations were incorrect, my opinions were pushed aside. Because STEM is so male-dominated, intelligent and promising young women like us find it difficult to contribute our ideas and fight against a culture where we are always viewed as inferior or inadequate.
In fact, STEM appears so masculine that children who have never stepped foot into a laboratory or solved a physics equation think that men should be scientists. Almost all popular media portrays scientists as awkward and intelligent white men wearing lab coats (Davis). It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that young girls stay away from STEM fields because they cannot identify with them. Everywhere girls turn, the male scientist stereotype is confirmed and amplified. Why don’t we just teach children about more female scientists? If we can show them females in a male-dominated field, the problem will be solved, right?
Wrong. Simply drawing more attention to the females in STEM will not completely solve the problem. Yes, it is a step in the right direction by challenging some of the existing stereotypes, but attracting girls to STEM fields means we have to completely shatter those stereotypes. Theoretically, any girl can break through these stereotypes, but it is not that easy. Because there are so few girls in STEM, any negative trait is generalized to all of them, and they are loaded with unnecessary pressure.
My elementary school participated in a district-wide competition called Math 24. Competitors received a set of 4 numbers, and the first one to figure out how to make 24 using the four basic operations would earn points depending on the difficulty of the set. “1, 2, 3, 4” would earn less points than “3, 3, 5, 7” (which took me a whole week to solve). I borrowed a set of Math 24 cards from my fifth grade math teacher, and I studied for this competition for weeks. All that hard work and dedication paid off; my arithmetic skills skyrocketed and I clinched the 1st place trophy on the day of the competition. It was a day of pride for me and my family.
That pride and confidence in my math skills dissolved within a week of school. We began a group project on furnishing a house. In groups of 4, were tasked to find furniture for a make-believe house given a budget of $1500. I asked to handle the budgeting. “But girls suck at math,” Jason, one of my group members, said. How in the world could I “suck” at math? I had gotten first place in the entire district, and I could confidently say that I was better than him at math. However, it wasn’t my legacy that had preceded me; it was the stereotype that girls are bad at math. I had proven my math abilities fair and square, but even that wasn’t enough for my group.
Stereotypes like the ones I faced in fourth grade are rampant in our society, particularly when it comes to education. Even though females perform on par with males on standardized tests, the cognitive and emotional burden of breaking such large stereotypes can cause females to choke and underperform. In a study done at the University of Michigan, male and female psychology students were asked to take a test (Spencer et al., 1999). In one group, the proctor specifically confirmed the bias by saying that the males had typically performed better. In the other group, the proctor denied the bias by saying that students of both genders performed equally well. And the results reflected the proctor’s words. In the first group, since females were both taking a test and fighting a stereotype, they performed much worse. In the second group, with the gender stereotype removed, males and females performed equally. The gap in their abilities was not linked to their sex; it stemmed from the stereotype. However, only changing testing logistics is just a temporary solution to the problem; we need to stop crushing females under the weight of negative stereotypes.
If we could teach girls to embrace challenges, to experiment, and to persist through obstacles, we could break their lack of confidence. If we could teach educators and professors to lift girls up instead of push them down, we could cultivate the next generation of female scientists. If we could teach society to treat girls as equals to boys, we could break stereotypical barriers in more fields than just STEM. Innovation and intellect are not limited to one gender; any aspiring female scientist can contribute as much, if not more, than her male counterpart. Girls like myself could have so many more professional role models to admire. Maybe, one day, we can inspire young girls to pursue their passions. Maybe, we can recall as many female scientists as we can male scientists. And maybe, we can hear more female names shouted out in physics classrooms.
Berwick, Carly. “Keeping Girls in STEM: 3 Barriers, 3 Solutions.” Edutopia, George Lucas Educational Foundation, 12 Mar. 2019, www.edutopia.org/article/keeping-girls-stem-3-barriers-3-solutions.
Davis, Geena. “Portray Her: Representations of Women STEM Characters in Media.” SeeJane, seejane.org/wp-content/uploads/portray-her-full-report.pdf.
Spencer et al., 1999, "Stereotype threat and women's math performance," Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35(1), p. 13.
Steele, J. (2003), Children's Gender Stereotypes About Math: The Role of Stereotype Stratification1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 33: 2587-2606. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2003.tb02782.x
“The STEM Gap: Women and Girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – AAUW : Empowering Women Since 1881.” AAUW, 31 Mar. 2020, www.aauw.org/resources/research/the-stem-gap/.
Twitter, Laurel Raymond. “Masculine Stereotype Of STEM Pushes Women Out Of The Field.” ThinkProgress, 1 Apr. 2016, archive.thinkprogress.org/masculine-stereotype-of-stem-pushes-women-out-of-the-field-b7dab7ebf656/.
Image source: www.xkcd.com