Funneling women into STEM majors seems easy enough. Add enough women in the mix, and (like trickle-down economics) those women will get tenure track positions, they’ll encourage the next generation and so on. In a perfect world, if a girl were interested in science, she would study science, and then she would get a job in science. Millenials are constantly harassed for studying subjects outside of STEM, so why should actively trying to get a degree in science (and stay in science) be so hard for women?
These are the “leaks” that I have found in my years as a woman in STEM. Feel free to add your own in the comments!
1. Right now, most ad campaigns and public initiatives for increasing diversity in STEM fields are aimed at children and adolescents. There’s a problem with this mentality: it doesn’t address the systemic problems rampant in academia and industry as a whole. It instead assumes the problem is that girls aren’t interested in science as much as they are nail polish. In reality, no matter what stage of a career or degree a woman is in, she’s going to run into issues typical of a system that has been historically run by men.
You can tell a girl she’s smart her whole life, encourage her in school, buy her a chemistry set, send her to math camp, help her apply for college scholarships in STEM fields, and she’s still eventually going to walk into a classroom, a lab, or a job interview and have some man dismiss her existence, deny her funding, pass her over for a promotion, or take credit for her work. How about you work on getting those [people] out of power and quit telling me not to call girls pretty. (x)
2. Even historical female scientists, many of whom were pioneers in their field, remain unknown, while male scientists of the same caliber become household names. For example, I’m sure many of you are aware that we can tell about how far a star away is by measuring its brightness (known as the period-luminosity relationship). But did you know that this discovery was made by Henrietta Leavitt, while she worked at Harvard as a glorified calculator? The Harvard director at the time ignored her findings, and a male colleague was awarded the Nobel Prize for her discovery a few years after her death. Women scientists, young and old, need to be told that being a woman and being a scientist is not mutually exclusive.
In fact, many antiquated gender roles are being proven false – archeologists now believe ancient cave paintings depicting “hunting magic” indicate that cave-women most likely participated in hunting with men. This scientific and social failure begs the question: did preconceived notions of gender influence these early discoveries? Or maybe they were honest mistakes? Maybe it was because all the archeologists making these decisions were men.
This example only highlights the need for more women, and diversity in general, in STEM and for those women to be recognized for their work.
3. Some sciences are in fact becoming more populated with women in the graduate level. Take our marine sciences graduate program, where men rate at only around 40% of graduate students (however, this statistic is not even close to the rate of men in faculty positions! Curious…). But I will say that even though 40/60 isn’t a really overwhelming bias towards women, the department still FEELS like most of the graduate students are women. In many studies, it has been noted that the perceptions of female numbers controlling a class or discussion are severely overestimated. In a classroom discussion where women talk 15% of the time, the men perceive it to be equally balanced; when increased to 30%, men perceive that women are effectively dominating the discussion. This phenomenon can be just as harmful as outright sexism when it comes to hiring practices. If a lab feels dominated by women, the PI might purposefully overlook women when recruitment time comes.
4. This seems pathetic to say, but the point above is a best case scenario. In fields where women are still severely underrepresented, like engineering, the differences can be downright appalling. Not only are you one of three women in a class, but you are also usually in a department with zero professorial counterparts. This matters for a myriad of reasons, but mostly because it means women have few peers to relate to, or authority figures to look up to. Try being in an engineering project group with a bunch of guys who think you don’t know what a screwdriver is. Or asking your professor to go over some notes with you when he might use that as an excuse to say you were never qualified to be there in the first place.
Add to this the fact that in the really old buildings, there aren’t two bathrooms on each floor because in those gosh-darn olden days, you didn’t need a women’s bathroom in a science building!
5. Women may study in STEM but they don’t stay. At least not at the rate men do. Even race doesn’t seem to play as much of a factor as gender does when it comes to who moves up the ladder in the ivory tower. Men leaving STEM professions tend to find themselves in jobs denoted as ‘Top Managers, Academic Administrators,’ indicating a promotion. Women, on the other hand, overwhelmingly end up in the category of ‘Business Professionals’ or ‘Other Non-STEM professionals.’ After years of study in their discipline, they walk away. I think we can assume something in the STEM environment proves poisonous to women’s retention rates.
6. Women are left to negotiate family planning on their own time. While faculty may have the option to ask for paid leave, graduate students don’t often have that luxury. Rachel Leventhal-Weiner talks about the Catch-22 of trying to have the ‘perfect academic baby’ while a graduate student:
[The perfect academic baby] arrives under the cover of night – presumably without the need for an epidural – in the sunny month of June, after the spring semester has safely ended. … Grad students could access maternity benefits only while we were being paid. And we were paid only during the nine months of the school year. So much for June. In a cruel twist of fate, there would be no perfect academic babies for us.
In such a progressive field as academia, it would seem that benefits like maternity (or paternity) leave would be par for the course. But when classes – taught or taken – depend on your presence, as any soon-to-be-mother in higher education knows, the academic calendar can be unforgiving.
7. Women, for whatever social or biological reason, have shown a severe confidence gap in relation to men. In academia, this typically manifests itself in the form of “imposter syndrome.” While not exclusive to women, this feeling that you aren’t as smart as everyone around you, or that you don’t belong can be much more harmful when added to all the other obstacles facing women in STEM. It becomes even more telling when you think about the fact that black women, one of the most underrepresented groups in STEM, have been recently ranked as the most educated demographic in America. What – or who – is telling them they aren’t good enough, when they are clearly some of the most qualified people in the business?
8. Girls will work with girls, but tend to be silent in groups where boys are present. In many of my STEM outreach experiences, I’ve noticed that girls are more comfortable working in groups with other girls. This might be a result of the confidence gap mentioned earlier, or a result of the boys actively drowning out the girls suggestions (because they don’t know how to build a catapult, right?). Either way, these early education experiences tend to stick well into adulthood. If a girl finds herself in a male-dominated field or lab group, this tendency to keep quiet might lead to those in leadership roles wondering if the girls can really keep up.
9. It could start with high school teachers. Even in my mostly white, upper-middle class high school, our physics class was ridden with sexism. Our teacher allowed us to take a daily break in the middle of our 90 minute class to do a short activity: usually some form of a ball toss competition wherein a girl scoring was awarded double the points as a boy. Imagine returning from this ‘game’ where you are thought of as so poorly skilled that you needed a handicap to a classroom setting where you inherently think of yourself as worse than the other [male] students. From the ‘ironically’ misogynistic mentality so popular with young liberal white males to the overtly sexist practices of many adult men, it’s no wonder women enter college vehemently opposed to a major in a predominantly male field. They’re just trying to get away from men.
Suffice it to say, a simple pipeline encouraging women to enter STEM fields is not working. An increase in the women to men ratio doesn’t always improve women’s lot in the matter, nor should it be the ideal goal. Women may never like coding quite as much as men do, and men may never like dolphins quite as much as women do. We need equal treatment in the work-and-school place, both implicitly and explicitly.
It wasn’t long ago that an interest in math and science was a ticket straight to geekville. In most places in America it remains so, but there’s one big difference. Today, the Bill Gateses and Mark Zuckerbergs run the world. It’s time women were allowed equal footing even if not equal numbers.