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Defeating Gender Bias

Thursday 23 July 2015 at 4:51 pm.

Women are extremely marginalized in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers. The question is, why? Why do women make up half of the workforce, but fewer than a quarter of STEM careers? Why do few women who receive STEM degrees actually go into a STEM job? Why are the amount of girls and boys who like math and science in elementary school equal, but twice the amount of boys than girls like math and science in middle school? We can’t really explain why gender differences in STEM exist. However, there is a great need for an improvement to encourage young girls to pursue these careers in American society. 


“One of the things that I really strongly believe in is that we need to have more girls interested in math, science and engineering. We’ve got half the population that is way underrepresented in those fields and that means that we’ve got a whole bunch of talent...not being encouraged the way the need to" -President Barack Obama.

There are three main reasons why there is a lack of women in science and engineering. First, teachers teach to the test, they never show how exciting math and science is in the real world. Math and science aren’t learned out of a textbook in the workforce, but applied and used as a tool to create experiments and inventions and ideas to change the world. Secondly, stereotypes are applied to women and men, about how they should act and do and dress. These strong “social norms” are chipping away at young girls dreams. Especially in middle school, where your whole life seems to depend on fitting in, these dreams of becoming a scientist, mathematician or inventor can be easily crushed by your peers. And lastly, a lack of role models leave young women uninformed and uninspired. Confidence is not only created through role models, but parents aren’t always able to explain that science is a money-making, and somewhat “safe” career choice, that anyone has the chance to pursue.

“Math, science, and technology are such wide categories that saying you don’t like math or science is a bit like saying that you don’t like water. Launching rockets, working with dolphins, even building a new building all require knowing something about math and science. So if you haven’t found something that interests you yet, just keep looking” (Thursday Bram, technical writer).

The few women who partake in a science or math career are usually involved in the “soft sciences”. Soft sciences include biology, economics or psychology, these are also called social sciences. Hard sciences include chemistry, physics, math, or other natural sciences that mostly deal with experiments and hypotheses. Soft sciences can also follow the scientific method, however, these sciences usually deal with human or animal behavior and data that are not always measurable. Figure 1 shows that today, social sciences are most common in women working in STEM occupations. While Figure 2 shows these values relative to how many males are in these STEM industries. Women are clearly underrepresented in these fields, but this is not only the effect of America’s strong gender stereotypes.

Former physics major and current software engineer, Megan Baker is the perfect example of women working in male-dominated occupations. This 23 year old has faced hardships of her own working in these careers, but few actually involve stereotypes. “One thing that people don’t talk about as much, is the internal barriers. The way the US career system is set up, self-confidence is one of the most important aspects. It’s harder to feel confident in yourself when you know that other people think of you as an outsider, or might think less highly of you. That some how translates to you feeling less highly of yourself, or being more scared to do things.”

STEM careers are also set up in a way that doesn’t allow many breaks. With most sciences you usually earn your phD, but that takes a lot of schooling and no guaranteed job at the end. “If you’re lucky, you get a job. That means that you worked really hard for a decade, and then end up with a ten year position, which means that you can finally take off time to have a child and then actually live your life. So I think that is a reason why there are fewer women in ten year positions in faculty especially in science, just because biologically that doesn’t really work as well. If you really want to have a kid, but by the time you’re thirty you may not even be done with school yet .… Just the structure of the career is designed for someone who doesn’t ever need to take time off.”

Claire Shipman and Katty Kay wrote a book exactly on this “skill” women seem to lack, or at least don’t use as much as they should in the work for. The Confidence Code explains that they number one reason holding women back from great positions and careers is their confidence and intimidation towards other men. “You know those uneasy sensations: the fear that if you speak out you will sound either stupid or self-aggrandizing; the sense that your success is unexpected and undeserved; the anxiety you have about leaving your comfort zone to try something exciting and hard and possibly risky.” These women seemingly brimming with confidence are filled with self-doubt anxiety, if these high-positioned women feel this way, just imagine what the rest of us feel like. Of course, everyone is nervous or scared at times, but women shouldn’t be looked at differently when they take charge. Many girls are scared to take charge, afraid of being called “bossy,” the dreaded “b” word. When a girl takes charge, she’s bossy, but when a boy takes charge he’s "assertive". Specific words that don’t necessarily come with an image, count as stereotypes too. There’s no reason a woman shouldn’t be in charge, and no reason why any man or women should stop her. And girls—and I’m speaking for all of us, including myself— never let the fear of being called bossy or “control freak” influence your decisions and the work that you and your team produce. You shouldn’t think of yourself as less or under anyone else. And boys, think again when you use the word “bossy,” because it comes with punch much harder than you intended.

STEM careers aren’t only less accommodating to women who need time off to raise a family, there are also few female role models to look up to. One benefit of women in science is creating a “chain reaction.” With more female role models other women feel more empowered and are more likely to be inspired. However, no one has clear answers for how we get more role models when future role models do not have role models to help encourage them. T

here are strong gender stereotypes discouraging women in STEM fields. Even though nobody wants to, we are always unconsciously judging people based off of their appearance. I talked with Howard Abrams, a software engineer for 35 years. He said that engineers like to think that they judge people based on the work that they produce. While really, engineers have this “unwritten” dress code, consisting of jeans and a t-shirt. If a lawyer showed up to work in jeans and a t-shirt, he would not be taken seriously, just as an engineer if they wore a suit. However, where do girls fall into this code? Does this mean that if they wear a dress or skirt that won’t be taken as seriously either? These are the little problems, the internal problems that women have to struggle with, daily.

Stereotypes aren’t only about girls, but the way media and culture perceives boys and what they are “socially allowed to do” can also change our views about how women should act. I talked with Rebecca Kemnitz, web engineer and animator. She had strong views about the social norms that boys are allowed to do. “Why is it okay for boys to be shut up in their room, coding or “nerds,” but for women, social media is okay, but that’s not a hobby.” Scientists are viewed as introverted, while women go into careers with food, business or other people-centric careers. The thing that many girls don’t realize is that technology is social. Engineering and technology doesn’t have to be coding in a dark basement, you can create games and social media apps and interact with your society.

Many girls weren’t given as good as an education as boys, and this still occurs today. The teachers didn’t try as hard on the girls or expect much out of them. Teachers were just “wasting” their education and material on girls who weren’t going to use it or need it. The scary thing is that this was only thirty years ago. Meg Urry graduated in 1978. She attended “a rural public school whose few accelerated courses in physics and calculus I wasn’t allowed to take because, as my principal put it, ‘girls never go on in science and math.’ Angry and bored, I began reading about space and time and teaching myself calculus from a book. When I arrived at Yale, I was woefully unprepared. The boys in my introductory physics class, who had taken far more rigorous math and science classes in high school, yawned as our professor sped through the material, while I grew panicked at how little I understood. The only women in the room, I debated whether to raise my hand and expose myself to ridicule, thereby losing track of the lecture and falling further behind.” She realized that women were not leaving the profession because they weren’t gifted, but because of the “slow drumbeat of being underappreciated, feeling uncomfortable and encountering roadblocks along the path to success.”

The 1980s was the height for women graduating in computer programming. Howard Abrams graduated in computer science in 1993. He says, “Out of 200 people in my graduating class, only five were women, four of which were Chinese. This was in 1993, just after the “height” of the 80s. Today these rates are rising, as 22 percent of engineers are women. However, this still doesn’t meet the 50 percent of women in the workforce we have today.
 How can we encourage young girls?

Encouraging young girls to pursue STEM fields is the first step to solving this problem. We can then make these fields more inviting and welcoming to women. STEM careers are less accommodating to women who need time off to raise a family or have a baby. While it is difficult for anyone in the workforce to take a year or two off, women find returning to the workforce after taking care of a baby to be especially difficult. Higher level education takes many years. If you really want to have a kid, but won’t be out of school until you’re thirty, that biologically doesn’t work well.

Equal pay is a huge issue that would definitely encourage more women into the workforce. In non-STEM careers there is a 14% wage gap. However, in STEM careers there is a 21% wage gap. Until equal pay laws are passed, as a woman, you would earn more in a STEM career than in a non-STEM career, compared to a man. In recent years, there have been three attempts to pass the wage equality legislation. However, the vote fell six votes short. The democrats failed to get a single republican vote. Women are paid less, but almost expected to work more. Many bosses take a woman’s work for granted. When a man works late they received extra praise, but a women are not given any credit, or are even expected to on a “make it or break it” situation. Not only do STEM jobs pay more, but STEM is the growth and jobs of the future. Most of economy and industry is predicted to include science, technology, engineering and math.

“Science is not a boy’s game, it’s not a girl’s game. It’s everyone’s game. It’s about where we are and where we’re going” (Nichelle Nichols, former NASA Ambassador). Working women introduce new perspectives, views and a diverse workforce. However, with STEM careers less accommodating to women who need time off to raise a family, the lack of female STEM role models, strong gender stereotypes against women into STEM jobs and unequal pay wages, all discourage young women to choose a STEM career.

You’d think by the 21st century we would have already solve these problems. Encouraging young girls is only the first step on the, unfortunately, long road ahead. Even though it’s easier said than done, every women should feel welcomed and willing to pursue any dream.

“The day will come when men will recognize women as his peer, not only at the fireside, but in councils of the nation. Then, and not until then, will there be the perfect comradeship, the ideal union between the sexes that shall result in the highest development of the race” (Susan B. Anthony).