Where Are All The Ladies In STEM?

By Kileigh Ford

Talks by Brilliant Women in STEM / TED Talks

Talks by Brilliant Women in STEM / TED Talks

After four semesters of college I can say one thing for sure: there is a noticeable lack of women in STEM classes compared to most other fields, especially in the United States. With the stereotyping of girls interested in science as nerdy, the lack of encouragement to pursue STEM degrees, and field issues of sexual harassment and fetishization, girls are conditioned to pursue fields other than physics, math, computer science, etc. from the beginning of their education, and this isn’t even the start of the problem. It’s a game of struggle for women in STEM, but why do we make it like that?

The long persisting problem has built up in the STEM fields within the U.S. over the years: women have been notoriously absent. Stemming from stereotypes that created recruitment efforts throughout history that did not include women, modern day women in STEM face other stereotypes that have formed specifically about their sex, having to work twice as hard to prove themselves. Those who persist often run into discrimination and harassment in the workplace. So many unnecessary problems  are finally being recognized after many years, but the systematic inequalities need to be unraveled from their long reigning hold on the field in order for a true level playing field to exist.

It all started the way most things do: with stereotypes. Stereotypes of men being the intelligent caretakers and women being dainty housemothers play a big role in where these issues stem (no pun intended) from. Due to this, history has reinforced the notion time and time again that women are excluded in recruitment efforts in the field, not even giving women the opportunity to get information on jobs in the field. Communities of people with similar qualities typically make a person feel more welcomed and accepted, encouraging them to join said group. In the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, there have rarely been groups of women to invite other females into their science- driven world. With no women present in these fields, no role models stand tall to show little girls that they can play with spaceships and chemicals for a living; No one is available for girls with a love for the sciences to put themselves in the shoes of.

In addition to the existing stereotypes of women as a whole, women in STEM face unique generalizations of their own. Being labeled as not good at math and science, nerdy, a loser, take a toll on young women beginning as early as in middle school. The word “nerdy” holds the force to shatter a young girl’s confidence as soon as it rings through her ears, and it does. According to a study conducted by the AAUW in 2010, young girls can be seriously affected by these implicit biases sitting in their unconscious mind, like women being bad at math, so much so that it will affect their attitude when approaching problems and tests. Or when the stereotype gets more specific, such as men are far better than women at math, a girl will often perform worse on a test in the subject while in a room with men versus  when no men are in the room during the test. These stereotypes deter many girls from even pursuing STEM fields past high school.

Those who overcome these barriers end up in a world of having to prove themselves over and over again.  They are told to act more masculine to be taken seriously but are also expected to act like a lady. In Joan C. Williams’ research, she found that 53% of women “reported backlash for displaying stereotypically ‘masculine’ behaviors like speaking their minds directly or being decisive,” whereas 34.1% of scientists participating in the study said they felt required to act feminine in their workplace. She refers to this as “the tightrope,” having to balance these two requirements and combat lines like “I didn’t expect someone Indian… and female to be like this” or being called a bitch because of their aggressive nature and ambition. Women are expected to be demure but also volunteer suggestions while not overshadowing the men they are working with.

Based on these notions, a sexist depiction of a female engineer gained an immense amount of backlash, and the hashtag #thisiswhatanengineerlookslike began trending. This highlights just one instance of sexism in the STEM workplace that has occurred, but many instances don’t go viral like this. In an AskReddit thread on the topic of hardships in the STEM field for women, many women stated issues such as; having to deal with being hit on, biases in which their professors graded them more harshly than the men, or their personality or work ethic not being what the companies wanted, despite saying they want more women in their STEM community.

Many instances of sexual harassment, though, seem to occur in college within the field more than anywhere else. UC Berkeley, and University of Chicago have witnessed resignations, with the University of Chicago case having particular viral backlash. These issues are becoming more visible because this is the time that STEM pursuers feel they must prove themselves most. Reddit user Wisix from the AskReddit thread stated:

“I remember getting assignments back that had all positive comments on it… but then I would get a C or D on it. I went to the professor and asked what I could improve on to get an A. He shrugged and told me he didn't know. He wouldn't raise the grade either, even though he told me my work was correct, I solved it correctly and had the correct answer, and I did the extra credit well. I checked with other students (men in the same class), and for similar work, if not the same, they received A's and B's.”

While this woman did not engage in sexual acts, Joan C. Williams recalls a conversation with her boyfriend from the 1970s, in her article, where one woman was finishing up her PhD early because she had slept with her advisor, whereas another had several years of schooling left because she had refused to. Joan C. Williams and Katie Massigner met with a group of female scientists to see how prevalent this problem was. One, Kim Barrett, the graduate dean at the University of California, San Diego, said “she did not know of a single senior woman in gastroenterology, her subfield, who had not been sexually harassed.” Another scientist in the group commented that the training courses over the summer for academic jobs is where much of the harassment occurred. She recalled two instances: one where a professor would be “taking photos of a student, zooming in on her breasts, and making jokes about her” and another where the professor fed ice cream to a student. She commented “[It happens] at the moment when a woman feels she is finally getting to be a real scientist and one of the gang.” Conferences, travelling and field work are said to be where sexual harassment increases for women in these fields as some men seek out affairs in these environments or just cannot control themselves and make far too many crude comments. It shouldn’t be too hard for someone to control themselves from making a comment that could harm or create an uncomfortable situation for another person, but many men in the STEM fields seem to have a hard time.

On top of it all, Belle Derks found that women who have been the victims of discrimination or harassment early on in their careers distance themselves from other women as time goes on. In addition, women who have had horrible experiences while climbing the ladder in their company will ensure that young women coming up in their industry have the same tough time with just as many roadblocks. Instead of building each other up, women are ostracizing themselves or breaking each other down due to discrimination by men.

In addition to all of these hardships in the field, the pay gap and motherhood are additional problematic issues that  women in the STEM fields experience. In 2013, the AAUW found that women in engineering only make 82% of what the men in their positions make, and women in computer science only make 87% of their male equals. While on par with the national average, the STEM fields hold a much smaller population of women compared to those in other fields, so despite earning less than men, the women in STEM fields are standing out. Motherhood, on the other hand, pulls women in two directions: their family life and work life. In addition, it’s hard to bring up needing to pump breast milk to an all-male audience. Lala Zhang, a civil engineer, stated:

“[B]ecause I am the only female engineer in the engineering department, and the only mother of young children, family issues have not been a priority at my workplace… When it came to breastfeeding, I brought a pump to work, but because of the nature of my workplace, it was hard to maintain a nursing schedule.  It was difficult for me to tell my male coworkers and bosses that I needed to take a pump break in the middle of a meeting or even a conversation. As a result, my milk production decreased quickly, and I only nursed my baby for five months.”

A study in 2009 found that 41% of female postdocs who gave birth during their program decided to not become research professors often due to the demands of family life or because of odd treatment or harassment from their instructors and others in their program. It’s difficult to function freely as a mother in a workplace where you are the only one that knows what you are going through, and when you face constant fetishization because of it.

Despite all of this negative history, the good news is that companies are taking stands; After a Google engineer sent  a memo that suggested “women’s biology makes them less able than men to work in technology jobs” and promoted extreme gender stereotypes, he was promptly fired. His actions caused a frenzy of articles, with a few men backing him up while others provided data disproving this claim. Similarly, #thisiswhatanengineerlookslike came out as a response to sexism in the field and has demonstrated the community of women that are backing up other ladies in STEM. On the academic side of things, many studies show that girls and boys score nearly even in the math and science sections of standardized testing, with girls often having  higher GPAs in these classes in school. In addition, recent efforts, such as Hour of Code and the #thisiswhatanengineerlookslike hashtag, have increased interest in STEM with young girls. In 2013, 60% of the students that had accessed Hour of Code’s coding tutorial were girls.

While I haven’t been studying in the field for very long, I can already tell you that the number of women in each class of Physics has steadily gone up from year to year. Beginning with a class of thirty, one third of them being girls, the numbers soon dropped the next semester to fifteen students, six girls on day one, five by day two. Then sophomore year came around; there were twelve students, four girls in the class. This was the highest the ratio of girls there had been in the recent years, with classes before having two girls in a class of ten or one in a class of twelve. In my experience, within colleges the number of women in STEM fields is on the rise, especially in the fields of biology and chemistry. It’s not a “mans world” like the workforce once was anymore, with women steadily on the rise in every industry, STEM fields should be no exception. No longer is it acceptable for men to fetishize women and shout things about their bodies while they're just trying walk down the street, nor is making women uncomfortable before, during and after the workplace. Luckily, it's become more unacceptable than ever before.

STEM ladies, never let anyone underestimate you and always know that you can do just as well, if not better, than your male counterparts regardless of what the wage gap says.

And a playlist of revolutionary women in STEM giving TED Talks for the road.