English 10 Honors
8 April 2017
Why Are There So Few Women in STEM Fields?
Over the past few decades, women have been striving for equality between the sexes. One way they have demonstrated this is by entering into traditionally male-dominated fields such as dentistry, law, and finance. Unfortunately, this has not been replicated to the same degree in STEM fields. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Today STEM fields are male-dominated even though women are perfectly capable of working in them. While women receive over half of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the biological sciences, they receive far fewer in the computer sciences (17.9%), engineering (19.3%), physical sciences (39%) and mathematics (43.1%) (National Science Board). Women are equally competent to achieve such degrees, so what is keeping them from entering these fields? The theory is this: as girls grow up they are raised with certain biases and predetermined expectations, then they go to high school and attempt to conform to society’s norms in an effort to avoid feeling snubbed, and by the time they get to college there is only a small fraction of women left who pursue a major in STEM subjects. They then enter the workforce only to realize that they will spend their next 20 years struggling to get somewhere in these fields, because of their gender.
From a young age, girls are bombarded with certain ideals that teach them what is and is not considered “acceptable”. One example of this is girls being inundated with what is perhaps the most influential and pervasive form of media on impressionable young girls: television. Take Bill Nye the Science Guy, for example. This show features a male scientist and is aimed at children to teach them about science-related topics. Girls might change the channel due to a lack of interest and start to watch Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse, a show featuring a skinny blonde girl with a love for shoes, clothes, and the color pink. Now a young girl watching this would see this girl on the television as a role model or an example of what girls are supposed to be like and what they should find interesting. Not only are most of the television shows with girl role models lacking intellectual stimulation, but they implant the idea in a girl’s mind that this is what they are supposed to be like. The lack of female scientist role models for young girls plays a huge part in the reason why many girls grow up wanting to be designers and models instead of chemists and physicists. What they see on television forms the stereotypes that prevent girls from doing things relating to STEM. Girls are raised to want to do “feminine” things like shop and get dressed up, and even base their future around dependence on a man for support. These ideas that are implanted into a child’s brain at a young age have an effect on them later in life, which leads them to believe that it is not okay to be interested in or pursue the same things as a man. Girls are basically taught that they should leave things like building, research, and other things that require more complicated thought processes (a.k.a. skills required in STEM) to boys. Children’s parents, teachers, and friends all play a role in this avoidance. They teach girls to gravitate towards dolls and playhouses while boys should play with Legos, chemistry sets and blocks. Stereotypes are not instilled in girls just with media and material things, but also verbally. Girls are brought up to strive for perfection and to be courteous and kind, not creative, assertive or forward-thinking. There is also the preexisting stereotype that girls just simply are not capable of excelling at math and science and that boys are better suited to do so. In a study that was conducted in 2008 it was found that:
A large body of experimental research has found that negative stereotypes affect women’s and girls’ performance and aspirations in math and science through a phenomenon called “stereotype threat.” Even female students who strongly identify with math—who think that they are good at math and being good in math is important to them—are susceptible to its effects (Nguyen & Ryan, 2008).
This directly shows how stereotypes affect girls and how they create such a large impact on their lives. There is a small percentage of girls who eventually overcome these stereotypes and do go into the field of STEM, but it just simply is not enough. Imagine if girls were encouraged to do more intellectually stimulating activities that challenged their creativity and skills; not only would they be more drawn to STEM-related subjects in school, but they would likely pursue those fields in college and probably even make a career out of them.
These influences on young girls do not only affect their dreams and aspirations; the effects of those childhood influences permeate into their high school careers, negatively affecting the number of young women in STEM fields. One example of this is peer pressure. In the current high school environment, there is so much pressure on a high school student to fit in and be accepted. Peer pressure has an alarmingly significant impact on girls when it comes to STEM. It can come from parents, friends, and even teachers, whether it is intentional or not. One example is girls following their friends when it comes to choosing classes. It is not uncommon for girls to want to follow and do what their friends do just so they can fit in and avoid sticking out. The problem with this is if everyone is trying to follow what one person does, there is no individuality. The world needs more girls who are willing to rise above the “Normal Nellys” and pave their own way. Another example of a pressure girls experience is to follow the paths of their parents; sometimes out of admiration and sometimes by force. Taking over a family business or following in a parent’s career footsteps are some examples of this. Because there are so few women in STEM careers, it is uncommon for girls to have someone to look up to in those fields, therefore they end up in traditionally female careers instead of becoming engineers and astrophysicists. This can lead to girls giving up on their dreams of working in STEM fields due to the pressure to please their parents. Another issue that girls face in high school that prevents them from pursuing a STEM-related career is discouragement or a lack of encouragement to do so. It is not uncommon for school counselors or other adults to warn girls in high school about how much harder it will be in the workplace for them if they choose a career where there is a significantly larger number of men than women. Discouraging girls into choosing an easier path is not how we should be helping girls find a career. Because adults are older, more experienced, and therefore wiser, a high school girl being told that being an engineer will be excruciatingly difficult will no doubt greatly increase the chances of her tossing aside that option for a career, and that just is not right. It is the same exact story in college too. Eileen Pollack, a physics major who didn\'t go into academia, writes, \"I didn\'t go on in physics because not a single professor — not even the adviser who supervised my senior thesis — encouraged me to go to graduate school\" (Pollack, NY Times). This is a prime example of a lack of support affecting the future of a perfectly capable woman. The fact is the world needs for girls in STEM fields to balance out the number of men and create a more well-rounded and diverse environment in the workplace and they cannot do that without support from the people around them. According to the New York Times, Eileen Pollack also writes how in high school she was not allowed to take the few advanced courses in physics and calculus because her principal said that, “girls never go on in science and math.” It is unfair for girls to be put down like this by those who should be empowering and uplifting them instead. What is just as worse if not even more is a lack of encouragement all together. There are not a lot of teachers who go out of their way to encourage female student to take the road less traveled and pursue a career in STEM. However, if they did, not only would it empower female students to explore these changing and developing careers, but it would motivate others to follow. Without encouragement in addition to discouragement, the majority of girls in high school just simply are not interested. According to the National Science Foundation, 66% of girls in 4th grade say they like science and math but only 18% of all college engineering majors are female (National Science Foundation). One can deduce that this is because of the pressures and lack of encouragement that girls are put through. Without the support they need, girls cannot overcome these obstacles to accomplish their goals.
After high school, the few women brave enough go into a STEM major graduate and get a job. Of the few who actually make it through college, some will find the struggle does not stop there. Being a female in a STEM field can be extremely hard for several reasons. One of the most important keys to being successful in any job is to gain the respect of your coworkers. This is especially hard to do as a female in a male-dominated field because men often lack respect for female coworkers in STEM fields. A perfect example of this is Tim Hunt, a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist, who said that the “trouble with girls” was that three things happen when they are let into the lab: “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry” (New York Times). Often, women are not made to feel welcome and find it hard to gain the respect of male coworkers because they are regarded as lesser, not as smart, fragile, or not qualified even when they have the same credentials as a man in the same position, as seen in the quote above. In trying to earn everyone’s respect, one might find themselves having to constantly prove themselves to anyone and everyone around them. Some women find that making themselves look more masculine by not wearing dresses and a lot of makeup helped them fit in and become more respected. The measures that women have to go through just to get some respect and recognition is flabbergasting. This is one of the reasons why many women do not want to go into male-dominated fields in the first place. Inequality also plays a significant role in the number of women in STEM fields. Whether it is pay or how women are treated in the workplace. It is a known fact that women do not get paid equal to men, and this is especially true in STEM fields. Women can have the same credentials, position, and amount of experience as a male coworker and still make a significantly less amount of money and it does not stop there. Researchers at Yale conducted a study that proved that “physicists, chemists, and biologists are likely to view a young male scientist more favorably than a woman with the same qualifications” (New York Times, Pollack). From this study one can see that there is a bias against women in STEM fields. Therefore, there is no doubt that women are treated quite differently than men in STEM careers. For example, many women are turned away after job interviews because future employers do not like the idea of a woman having to take time off of work to care for her children. Another example of coworkers treating a woman differently can be shown when it comes to what kinds of projects they are put on and how their efforts are seen. Sometimes coworkers will choose to put the woman on the easier tasks to leave the men to do the more complex work. If a woman does get the opportunity to work on a big project her ideas may not be seen equally to a man’s and they might get pushed aside. The last reason why being a woman in a STEM career is challenging is the competition. Because there are so few, women will often find themselves have to compete with one another to be seen or recognized in the workplace. Instead of teaming up to become a more powerful force, they turn to tearing each other down and fight for the “top dog” spots within the company. On top of all of this they are competing with the men in their field, sometimes having to work twice as hard to get half as far as a male coworker.
The harsh reality is that we live in a society where, even if subconsciously, women are not considered one hundred percent equal to men. We live in a world where stereotypes are not only an unfortunate fact, they are fostered. Girls spend the first decade of their life being told how to act, what to do, and what to look like, which, combined with everyday pressures, affects who they are in high school leading to a small number of women in male-dominated fields, or more specifically STEM fields. I think Megan Smith, the U.S. chief technology officer, describes the situation best when she said, “The biggest problem with attracting and retaining women in STEM fields is that there’s not one major hurdle to overcome, but hundreds” (Smith, US News). Until more women start to stand up and overcome these barriers, the number of women in STEM careers will not grow in a significant way.
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