Women and STEM: A Brief Analysis of an Ongoing Battle

There are fewer women in the sciences, but women are not objectively worse at math or science by any measure.  This problem has perplexed scholars and activists alike for decades.  There are many aspects to this, and I seriously recommend reading the recent NYT Op-Ed on the subject for another view and more information.  But having read many studies and op-eds, and having started in the sciences and watched my sister go to college to study physics, I am ready to say…well, to finally say something.

There aren’t rules forcing women out of the sciences.  Many collegiate programs have been trying to pull women in.  But the reality is that fewer women go in and more women drop out of STEM fields, earning it the term “leaky pipeline” field.  I think social norms have a lot to do with this.  As Pollack points out in the previously referenced op ed, science in the US is considered “geeky” and both men and women, but ESPECIALLY women, tend to hide their interests and abilities in order to fit in better with their peers.  This is in many cases true of academic talent in general, but even more so in the sciences.  Though she doesn’t say it explicitly, the social consequences of being a geek can be multiple: first, girls may reject other girls based on their being “geeky” and therefore “uncool”, but guys may also lump these girls in as less feminine and accordingly they become relatively excluded from the dating pool.  In addition, cultural norms create negative feedback: when women are reminded that they are women and women are bad at math, they perform worse.  This is not necessarily true for men.  In addition, men are encouraged to explore these interests from a young age through the kinds of toys they are given-~-Legos, Kinex, chemistry kits, telescopes-~-while women are not.  This means that, from a young age, women are told that those kinds of activities are not from them, and they thus have to first overcome this idea before they can even come into contact with the social repercussions of “geekdom” in high school.

There is a second, related problem, called the Impostor Effect.  Sheryl Sandberg discusses this in her book, Lean In, and I think it’s an important point: men are taught to believe they are deserving of their success and women are not, and men are taught to believe they can take on challenges while women are not.  As a result, women are more likely to suffer from a lack of confidence in academic and professional settings.  (In fact, Peggy Orenstein has written about the confidence gap between men and women in high school more generally, and it is a subject worthy of further exploration).  Sandberg points out that women are more likely to suffer from self-doubt and, as a result, are less likely to take a seat at the table, take on greater challenges, ask questions, etc.  In response, as Pollack mentions, professors are less likely to be patient with students who seem unsure if they belong.  This self-doubt may also impact performance, and very often impacts women’s decisions to stay or not stay in a particular field.  Women are often made to feel that they got lucky when they do well, whereas men believe that they have earned their achievements, and if we want to fix the problem of women and leadership or women and STEM, among others, we will first need to address this confidence gap and the Impostor Effect.

I believe that the Impostor Effect is particularly problematic for women who are surrounded by men.  These women have a more difficult time to begin with because they may not be taken seriously by male classmates or professors, and because they are already contending with social beliefs about ability and acceptability.  The result is a compounded problem wherein women feel that they do not belong in the sciences, and therefore leave.  The FURTHER result is that women see fewer women around them and have fewer female role models, reinforcing the idea that this is not a field that is hospitable to women.

But I think we need to ask the question: is science hospitable?  I am not so sure it is, at least not all the time.  In academia, the fact that professors are often still dismissive and male classmates don’t take their female classmates seriously creates an environment that pushes women out.  But moreover, I think the way in which science is taught often favors men over women in a way that is problematic.  I speak from anecdotal evidence here, but bear with me.  Teachers are already predisposed to call on male students as opposed to female students.  Because there are disproportionately more men in science classes, science teachers-~-who are also disproportionately male-~-tend to cater to that male base.  This means that examples tend to be about things like sports, or feature male characters, because it is believed that men will find these things more appealing.  There is actually NO REASON why it has to be this way, but because it is perceived that the consumers of the lesson will be more receptive to these methods, this is how it is taught.  Additionally, teachers are incentivized to inject humor that the majority of the class will appreciate, even if it is at the expense of the minority.  I know this certainly happened in AP Physics classes in my high school, and I am sure it has happened in other instances.

In addition, in her op-ed Pollack points out that women are less likely to be hired and more likely to be paid less than their male counterparts in the sciences.  This creates a less hospitable environment as well, and the Atlantic Wire points out that mechanisms such as paid maternity leave are needed to keep women in fields like the sciences.  Fields predominated by men are less likely to be accommodating of women because the leadership within those fields is more likely to be ignorant of women’s experiences (another issue Sandberg brought up in her book).  Together, these factors help to make a professional environment that is not optimal for women wishing to pursue this kind of work.

This means that the factors pushing women out are the same ones keeping women from joining in in the first place: women are still being made to feel like they don’t belong in the sciences, are still not having their needs met, and are still not being encouraged to aim higher or dream bigger within the context of their science careers.  If we want women to be in the sciences, we first need to start making the sciences a place they want to be…which means we need to change how we talk about science, frame it in less masculine terms, train teachers to target and encourage girls, and create opportunities for women to network with each other and create support systems to help navigate the sciences.  Some of these programs already exist.  When we talk about women in the sciences, we need to stop treating them as the exceptions, and start talking about how to make them the rule-~-and that may mean questioning whether or not we need to start changing the game.

This post was written for Ariel C., Victoria D., Chaimaa M., Carly S., Barri B., and of course, my wonderful sister Lauren S.  Keep on keeping on.


~ by Randi Saunders on October 7, 2013.

11 Responses to “Women and STEM: A Brief Analysis of an Ongoing Battle”

  1. […] Women and STEM: A Brief Analysis of an Ongoing Battle […]

  2. With all of the talk of STEM fields, I think a much more important aspect of gender discrimination is being over looked in higher education. I call them HAM field. Humanities, Arts and Medicine. Men are Dominant in STEM fields, but ONLY STEM fields. Early childhood education is very nearly 100% female. If there was one field that I would say is the single most important field to push for gender equality it would be Early childhood education. The single most important time for people is early childhood. The most important time to teach children about gender equality is early childhood. The most affective teaching tool is example. With less than 5% of school teachers being male, our schools are an example of gender segregated workplaces. We are teaching our children the benefits of gender segregated workplaces. We are teaching our children women teach and men??? well men??? umm Men must do something.

    Right back to the main point. STEM fields are not the ONLY fields at any given university. The very smart women have the choice between STEM, and HAM. The very smart women have a HUGE range of options that they are encouraged to explore. Men, the men ALL go to STEM. The problem isn’t that women are excluded from STEM fields, but that men are excluded from practically everything but STEM fields.

    I like numbers, so lets play with some numbers. There are 100 very smart men and 100 very smart women. All 100 men go into STEM, the women having a choice, chose 50/50 STEM and HAM. This means 2/3 of STEM are men and 1/3 are women. The number in reality is 27% of STEM students are women. Sexism against men. Men being excluded from everything BUT STEM is a much better explanation that better fits the facts than sexism against women.

    • I think the data on politics indicates that men are going into the social sciences. Men are still major actors in fields such as law, medicine, etc. I’m just not sure where you got the idea that all men go to STEM fields. I think looking at colleges would say that you are just on face incorrect. Men still make up huge percentages of social sciences majors and even humanities majors such as philosophy.

      Moreover, other fields don’t push men out the same way. We DO socialize men to believe that certain fields are feminized, and those fields certainly include teaching (others include things like nursing and childcare). This is because those fields are considered a) softer and b) more flexible. Men may be told not to pursue pink collar work, but let’s be clear: women are told that they should.

      If you like numbers so much, let’s talk about numbers. Fields dominated by men-~-including STEM fields (which includes medicine, by the way, what kind of distinction is that?), finance, law, etc.-~-earn more than fields dominated by women. Both men AND WOMEN suffer because of this. In turn, men who are told that they need to earn more are dissuaded from pursuing those fields which earn less, such as teaching or nursing.

      I won’t deny that men are often deterred from entering the arts or humanities, but that has to do with the feminization of those subjects and the persistence that masculinity need divorce itself entirely from that which is feminine. But that doesn’t mean that there is not a real problem regarding women’s participation in STEM fields, politics, international relations, etc. The studies indicate that women ARE being pushed out of this field, for a multitude of reasons, and just because men may also be told that certain fields are not as appropriate does not mean that women’s issues disappear. In fact, I’d say that it is still sexism which supports this divide, as women’s income is still seen as supplemental rather than necessary, and consequently it is seen as more acceptable for women to take lower-paying jobs, because their work is not seen as being as valuable.

      • Any issue with people involved will involve women. Any issue that involves women can be spun as a “Women’s Issue”. All you are doing is spinning this issue as a women’s issue. Clearly it can be spun that way and spun well.

        ” Men may be told not to pursue pink collar work, but let’s be clear: women are told that they should.” Just as men are told they SHOULD pursue STEM. Tell women what to do, it’s sexism against women. Tell men what to do, it’s sexism against women. I call bullshit.

        “Earn more” Well If the issue is earning potential why are we talking about STEM fields and not the abysmal pay for teachers and nurses? If the real issue is money, it’s not STEM fields but pay for “Women’s work” that should be the focus. If Kindergarten teachers pay is competitive with engineers, both the gender segregation of the school work environment and the issue with STEM goes away.

        “I won’t deny that men are often deterred from entering the arts or humanities” This is 80% of my point and you agree. There are strictly enforced gender roles for men. Is it really impossible that strictly enforced gender role A is responsible for the gender gap not much less strictly enforced gender role B?

      • So why are you getting angry with me? Because I didn’t talk about the issue that YOU would have liked me to talk about? I can write a post on how the Patriarchy restricts men to certain gender roles, and certain feminism would be against that, I chose not to.

        But I think you’re misunderstanding my point here. The issue isn’t just about pay, it’s about perception, and it’s about leadership and accommodating people. Men may not choose education because they don’t see many men there, but they aren’t actively TOLD that they can’t be teachers, and their female classmates still take them seriously when they choose to go into teaching. And when they do go into education, they’re more likely to be promoted and more likely to be paid more than women. Women, in contrast, are actively told that they aren’t good at math or science even though it isn’t true, and this impacts performance and the perception of people hiring them.

        The other difference is that when men do choose to go into the arts and humanities, they are less likely to drop out. You are seeing deterrents at the entry point and those may exist, but they can also be overcome. The difference is that once women are in the system, they continue to drop out, creating that leaky pipeline effect. This does not happen with men going into the humanities, arts, or education. As if THAT were not enough, the persons within those fields who are most celebrated are STILL men, decreasing that deterrent factor. Women are still struggling to see themselves in the sciences.

        I think that the issues are interrelated, but they are not precisely the same. I am ALL FOR having female-dominated fields be better respected and increasing gender parity across the board, but I chose to write about THIS ISSUE. I am asking you politely to consider before you make another post whether or not you are furthering a debate or just pitching a fit in my comments section.

      • In truth, mostly I’m just pitching a fit. Your points about this being the topic you chose one your blog are very valid. This does not make it non-problematic.

        Everyone is writing about how STEM affects women. There are committees and studies and dozens of blog all looking at how the 70/30 split in STEM affects women. And how to help women in STEM.

        I tried being nice and kind and respectful and compromising. It didn’t work. Pitching fits works to get attention. The 70/30 split in STEM does deserve attention but so does the 100/0 split in gender studies or the 99/1 split in early childhood education or the 95/5 split in nursing. A much bigger issue than the 70/30 split in STEM? The 60/40 split in university enrollment that favors women.

        Your post in isolation is a good post that is significant commentary on a real problem. The problem with the post is that it feeds into the belief that Women in STEM is THE problem in higher education, not just one of the minor ones or part of a larger gender segregation problem going on.

      • If you would like, I would be more than happy to either write a post on those issues, which I do think are valid concerns, or have you write a guest post on those issues if you would prefer. I think that we should talk about why men are deterred from going into pink collar work.

        There is one thing I want to say, though: I think that there are more women attending universities not through admissions committee bias, but potentially for other reasons, and I would want to look at why those are. I have some theories, but I’m not ready to post them here without doing a little background research, because I try really hard not to post absolute nonsense on this blog.

      • If you could write a post on those issues, it would be wonderful. I would offer my writing as a guest post, but I truly believe that your words would carry more weight than mine. If you would like to post both a guest post from me and one written in your own words, that would be wonderful.

        And I agree, the gender disparity in enrollment is probably not caused by admissions committee bias, well maybe 1 or 2 points, but not the 20 point gap. Things I expect are significant factors are High schools failing at reaching young men and women having significantly greater access to grants/scholarships/funds.

      • I actually think it also has to do with the appearance of other options such as tech school or vocational school for men, which women are not encouraged to pursue, as well as issues such as incarceration rates.

        I was actually planning to do a post on the devaluation of female-dominated fields and the implications that had, so I am more than happy to adjust that to talk about broader issues dealing with segregation in the workplace. I’ll put it up in the next couple of days most likely.

  3. Can’t speak for all women, but I personally never perceived anything that was explicitly pushing women out of science fields in college. I graduated with a degree in Biology with honors. Our Biology department is actually about 60 percent women. (At my uni, biology and chemistry are dominated by women, and engineering, physics, and computer science by men.) I did undergrad research with our research team being about 50/50 men and women. I felt that both my male and female professors were equally supportive to me. I hope that girls really aren’t getting left out for whatever reason, because they should be able to pursue their interests in the sciences if they want.

  4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3166361/

    The above paper talks about the effect of sex hormones on career choices. Perhaps a lower ratio of women to men in the STEM fields is exactly what we’d expect.

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