Closing the Gender Gap in STEM Fields

Female scientist with white lab coat and safety glasses performing experiment with test tubes.

The small white digits on Sanjana’s iPhone glared at her, indicating both that she had slept for less than four hours and that her 8 a.m. engineering lecture would begin in approximately 15 minutes. Groggily, she fumbled for her glasses and brushed her teeth before bundling up for the biting negative temperatures and windchill she could almost always expect from Cleveland in mid-December.

But Sanjana was cheerful — well, about as happy as anyone on her way to a Monday morning class about circuits could be. After spending her entire weekend completing an extensive lab report — intended to be done in pairs — alone, Sanjana felt as though she had conquered the voltage-current resistance relationship.

As she was finally submitting her tedious assignment, her partner — who had previously avoided her pleas for help and responded to her questions only with “Idk you figure it out” — suddenly decided to care. He snatched the papers out of her hand and began to look over each problem, carefully inspecting her work line by line, exponent by exponent.

And then, he took out an eraser.

“What are you doing?” Sanjana shrieked. “I checked all of the answers with our T.A.”

“Well, you still got a ton of this math wrong,” he incorrectly retorted. “Did you just decide not to use a calculator at all?”

“This is 20 percent of our grade,” she reasoned. “Now is not the time to erase my work.”

His response would replay over and over in her mind, forcing her to reconsider the career she had always envisioned for herself and evaluate whether or not she could thrive in the male-dominated biomedical field.

“You’re getting so emotional about this. This is why women shouldn’t be engineers.”

Graduated cylinder half empty

Though a piercing memory, this instance of sexism comprises just one of many times Sanjana has felt as though her ambitions were invalidated, her vast potential underestimated.

“I’ve been told that I’m too pretty to care about science and math,” she says. “When I tell people my major, they act either shocked or sorry for me.”

She does not stand alone.

After graduation, she will encounter the harsh reality of the engineering workforce, in which just 15 percent of women hold jobs. Prospects of gender equality in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields appear grim, with women often declined jobs or raises so that men with the exact same qualifications can advance in their careers.

So that the very individuals who scorned and undermined Sanjana can surpass her in status and pay.

So that young girls aspiring to pursue futures in STEM have one fewer role model, increasing the likelihood that they will forsake their ambition.

Director of Engineering at Facebook Jocelyn Goldfein notes the disheartening, cyclical nature of gender disparity in STEM, attributing the epidemic to a lack of representation itself.

“The reason there aren’t more women computer scientists is because there aren’t more women computer scientists,” she says.

Woman sitting in front of computer screen, working on developing code.

Independent variables

Though STEM careers often focus on empirical formulas and calculated precision, words matter, too. Peers, teachers, and even parents can — often unintentionally — elicit subtle verbal cues that enforce gender stereotypes and discourage girls from following through with their initial desire to become a chemist or an environmental engineer or a math theorist.

According to founder of Girls Who Code — an initiative to enforce an understanding of coding software in young girls through summer classes — Reshma Saujani, seemingly innocuous statements can make lifelong differences.

“We teach girls at a very young age not to get dirty, to be nice — this whole princess myth,” she says. “We indoctrinate them to behave in a certain way.”

Recognizing the major toll sexist comments can take on women over time, Saujani narrated a commercial titled “Inspire Her Mind,” which documents the ways in which the featured protagonist, Sami, evolves in response to her parents’ wishes for her to conform to gender norms.

When Sami tries using an electric screwdriver, her father warns her to give the tool to her brother instead. When she decorates her room with a makeshift solar system, her mom complains that she has created a mess. Instead of celebrating her expressed passion for science, Sami’s parents make her feel uncomfortable exhibiting her love for adventure and experimentation.

The end of the advertisement features Sami — now a grown-up middle-schooler — navigating bustling hallways in between classes and eventually encountering a poster notifying students of an upcoming science fair. She stops and stares at the flyer for several moments, leaving viewers wondering whether her suppressed interest in STEM will suddenly reignite, but she merely applies her lip gloss and walks away.

Young girl applying lip gloss while looking at her reflection on the glass of a school bulletin board

One by one, her loved ones’ disparaging remarks had convinced her that her previously indicated passions do not truly suit her, that her desire to enter and to dominate conventionally male careers could not be valid or plausible.

By the books

Not all pessimistic views of women in STEM originate from verbal reinforcements. One 2012 study documents the grand effects textbook images — which often portray males conducting experiments or suiting up in a fancy lab coat and goggles, while women pet animals or clean the equipment — can have on girls’ confidence, particularly in science classes.

The author of the above 2012 study reasons that these displayed images usually “feature women in more traditional, passive roles, such as caregivers, elementary teachers, nurses, and the like,” speculating that since young girls cannot visualize themselves conducting tasks related to STEM research, they cannot possibly decide to pursue related careers.

Perhaps these images enforce the traditional, Romantic-era notion that women cannot engage in activities unrelated to the home or the humanities — the same nonsensical argument the aforementioned commercial refutes.

One study suggests that no difference in math capability between girls and boys exists before the age of seven, but by adolescence, young men receive 30–35 more points on the math portion of the SAT than young women do. So what’s happening during those formative years?

The same researchers propose that women are socially pressured to adopt a nervous mindset when approaching math, so even female teachers who specialize in math may pass on this unsteady approach to their students, reinforcing a perception of girls as unworthy of confidently solving quantitative problems.

“My classes never taught me about anyone like myself who wanted to do what I did,” Sanjana says. “I think schools need to stop teaching students that men are better at math and science — which isn’t even true — and start focusing on women’s lack of representation in their lessons.”

Though 66 percent of fourth graders indicate interests in science and math, just 18 percent of bachelor's engineering degrees go to women, and overall, only 28.4 percent of STEM employees are female.

Perhaps learning of that harsh reality at a young age will indeed light a fire under girls to bridge the gender gap, to pursue futures in fields that currently seem to work against them, to remain committed in instances of adversity, and to never forsake hope, even when someone erases their answers, looks them in the eye, and says, “women shouldn’t be engineers.”

Balancing the scale

Luckily, the atmosphere surrounding young girls’ interest in potential STEM futures seems to be more welcoming than it used to, with initiatives such as Girls Who Code surging in popularity and participation. Furthermore, after school programs — such as Girl Scouts of America and 4H — have incorporated STEM curriculum into their activities to engage girls in male-dominated fields at young ages, hopefully sparking a lasting interest unable to be muted by stereotypes and gender norms. One San Francisco day care program even immerses participants in a laboratory or hospital or software environment once a week in an attempt to demonstrate that all children should have equal access to STEM-related opportunities.

Culture continues to change and progress, hopefully so much that claims such as Nobel Prize winner Tim Hunt’s can be perceived as laughable, rather than truly denigrating.

Emulating some of the same irrational qualities as Sanjana’s lab partner, Hunt remarked, “three things happen when [women] are in the lab. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry.”

Luckily enough, Marie Curie managed to put down the tissues for long enough to identify radium and polonium, and Rosalind Franklin — who did not receive the Nobel Prize for her very own scientific breakthrough, as it went to two men whose only valid discovery was her notes — could block out male distractions with her lab goggles effectively enough to develop the first accurate DNA model.

Women are not just the ones researching and suffering from this issue; they are, in fact, the solution.

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