Introduction to the role of women in STEM
Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs… Do these names ring a bell?
Now try mentioning some female counterparts of theirs.
The attention surrounding the role of women in STEM has increased significantly in the past few years. Nevertheless, despite the fact that women have been striving for empowerment for 150 years now and progress has been rather slow, the feminist movement that originated in the 19th century has finally brought about some positive change.
Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) started off as domains in which only privileged men could succeed. And without a doubt, this mentality has repercussions on the careers of young women to this day. However, there seems to be a faint light at the end of the tunnel as more and more women decide to speak up and challenge the standards established by society.
But what exactly have we managed to accomplish so far, and what else can we do to break the vicious cycle to ensure a better life for the generations to come?
Since the dawn of STEM disciplines, back when man was just starting to crawl through the early discoveries in astrology, medicine and technology, white privileged men have been dominating almost the entirety of the scientific community. Women, on the other hand, used to be banned from emancipation, and the only way they could get educated was by moving to a convent.
As a result, the striking majority was deprived of all intellectual freedoms, besides being financially dependent on the male figures in their family.
So, the stereotypes that we are so familiar with today are the product of years of male domination: society excluded women from functioning as their own person, which resulted in later discouragement from pursuing a career altogether.
When did women start gaining their respect as STEM researchers and specialists?
The complete suppression of women’s ambitions continued for centuries. It wasn’t until the 90s that society finally realized that discrimination within STEM disciplines is not based on scientific grounds.
This meant that women had the same potential as their male counterparts when it came to working and producing results. Once perceived as incapable and out of place, they now started gaining recognition in STEM, as well as in other fields.
But that was just the beginning of an arduous battle for equality that is still far from over.
How many women are currently STEM professionals?
In the last 30 years, the proportion of women employed in the sciences grew substantially.
According to UNESCO, worldwide, they currently make up around 30% of STEM professionals, which is already a remarkable achievement, considering that not so long ago that figure was close to zero. For instance, in the 1970s, the USA saw women occupying only 8% of the workforce in the sciences. But even though some glass ceilings have been broken, others are not as easy to knockdown.
Let’s take into consideration the healthcare system: the proportion of women in healthcare may stabilize at an astounding 65%, but only 16% of executives are female.
However, the issue emerges way earlier, in college, where girls only account for around 35% of STEM majors, and in most cases, they don’t even pursue that career later on. For example, approximately 20% of women with a degree in engineering work in the field 30 years into their career, compared to 40% of men.
Hence, there are two main points of concern: a lack of interest and the inability to take charge, for one reason or another. But to really get our heads around this problem, we have to find its roots.
Why are there fewer women in STEM?
There are multiple factors that influence the current position of women and girls in STEM. Apart from being hugely outnumbered, they have to endure rude comments and comparisons concerning their intellectual capacities.
Let’s break it down.
We have now seen how in the past women were forced into an intellectual prison, where they were controlled and suppressed, which launched the bases for numerous gender stereotypes that persist today.
From a very young age, girls are told that they do not belong in the sciences and that boys are way more capable when it comes to math. This discouragement leads to a loss of interest, because, coming from figures such as their parents or teachers, these opinions convince the girls that it is not worth getting into science.
On top of this, STEM disciplines are frequently seen as tough and exhausting, both mentally and physically.
Society tends to associate this image with male figures, but then if we place women in a similar setting, not only does it appear unusual, but in the eyes of the average impressionable observer it also belittles the discipline itself that is consequently seen as a “soft science”.
In turn, due to this perception, women tend to be paid on average 14% less than men for carrying out the same tasks, which escalates the already existing gender pay gap. This gap becomes a precipice if we take into consideration women coming from less favored communities, therefore making this a multi-layered issue.
Lack of role models
Already deprived of support, be it from their loved ones or the society, female students in STEM do not have many figures to look up to, partially due to the fact that there are simply fewer women in the field. But it is also because they are often omitted when it comes to a promotion, even if they manage to get into the discipline of their liking.
Hence, women are prone to becoming discouraged just by seeing all the men holding executive positions and women generally following their orders.
But this problem doesn’t only concern the perception of those women themselves, but also that of the general public.
Let’s make use of the most powerful and accessible tool of our times: Google. It only takes 5 seconds to do a search about the most influential people in this domain and realize that most of them are men.
After all, we hear about Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates every day, but have you recently heard any news about Barbara Askins or Cynthia Breazeal, who are considered some of today’s most important women in STEM?
The reason for this underrepresentation is the failure to reward women for their achievements in scientific research. The male-to-female ratios among Nobel Prize winners are shocking: a striking 97% of those recognized for outstanding research in physics, chemistry, and medicine are men, even though a third of the professionals are women.
Such an undermining image of women in science escalates a mechanism of exclusion: they do not hold a position of power; therefore, they are not able to stand out on the job, which in turn keeps younger women from securing internships and scholarships.
As a matter of fact, men receive significantly more financial support to help kick start their careers.
How is this situation going to change?
Current efforts to close the gap
Although slowly, today’s society is taking matters into their own hands.
In 2019, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the United Nations adopted a resolution that addressed some of the most important issues concerning the gender gap in STEM.
It underlined the importance of the empowerment of women as a means to achieve full economic stability in developing countries, as well as the need to reward female researchers for their achievements. Some noteworthy awards mentioned were the L’Oréal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science and The African Union Kwame Nkrumah Award for Scientific Excellence for women.
The ECOSOC recommended focusing on encouraging female students to pursue a career in science and on retaining women and girls that are already in the field. This is beneficial for both the women and the enterprises, as employee retention is proven to be a cost-effective strategy to build stability and boost productivity within the team.
Apart from these important intergovernmental institutions, more and more independent non-profit organizations emerge in this battle for equality.
An advantage of these institutions is that they are not limited by politics, therefore, their actions have no real boundaries, and their target audience ranges from the general public, all the way to national governments.
Some well-known organizations dedicated to women in STEM are Girls Who Code which focuses specifically on women in computer science, and the Association for Women in Science (AWIS), which fights against the gender pay gap and discrimination.
What should be done
The current actions of international organizations that aim to achieve gender equality are more than valid, nevertheless, some initiatives need to come from within. This is the only way to make permanent changes.
First, society needs to stop demolishing the confidence of young girls that want to start a career in research. There is no proof of any differences in logical abilities between men and women, therefore, girls should not be taught otherwise and should be encouraged to pursue their interests at all costs. It is largely up to their closest circle to make sure that girls are not trapped by gender bias.
Secondly, on the same basis, women should be offered equal promotion pathways and opportunities to grow their network, which would also assure the presence of role models for the future generations of female scientists.
In addition, activism should be encouraged and promoted rather than condemned, as it is often the case. Increasing awareness helps recognize existing issues, which could eventually lead to the normalization of women working in STEM, and, potentially, it would gradually close the pay gap, as women’s achievements would be recognized and valued equally to those of men.
Women that work in science carry a history of oppression on their shoulders.
They are exposed to unfounded stereotypes and unnecessary comments every day, besides also being severely underpaid for the job that they do, and they don’t even have an exemplary figure to follow when things get hard.
But the world seems to be going in the right direction as more and more initiatives come both from world organizations and individuals that want to put an end to this injustice and give women equal opportunities. However, even though society has already reclaimed some of women’s rights, the fight is still ongoing.
There are a lot of minds to change before reaching the ultimate goal.