The lack of gender equity in STEM continues to be one of the biggest contemporary challenges to overcome. To tackle it, society must examine the institutional barriers that prevent women from participating, as well as the pernicious narratives that permeate our wider culture.
Different STEM fields face vastly different degrees of gender representation. In the US, over 50% of bioscience undergraduate degree recipients are women. This number drops significantly to fields like engineering, physics, and computer science where the percentage is closer to 20%. This is despite similarities in early academic performance between boys and girls – PISA scores are near identical for boys and girls in mathematics and science.
Deficits in gender representation become more glaring as you go down the ‘STEM pipeline’. All STEM fields show consistent trends of more women ‘leaking’ out of the system on the road to becoming fully tenured professors or high-ranking academic administrators/researchers.
Why are things like this? There is inexhaustible supply of research that have studied numerous factors that contribute to the negative external backlash women receive in STEM, as well as the internalized perceptions women have.
One barrier is whether women believe science is a ‘relevant’ profession for them. Rational questions shape women’s early interest, such as: would pursuing STEM guarantee a safe work environment? Would it allow for career progression and benefits such as maternity leave? Have there been other examples in history of successful women in STEM?
All of these questions are shaped by softer cultural influences that frame science and technology as exclusive. Only 13% of occupations classified as STEM are filled by women. The lack of a female presence in STEM means that young girls find it more difficult to envision themselves as leaders in their fields.
Cultural beliefs surrounding STEM as inherently gendered not only shape how women shape their future aspirations, but also the reactions of the people around them. Research reveals that males under-estimate the performance of their female peers.
Similarly, evidence shows that readers perceive research to be lower quality when it is a female author, as opposed to a male author. One early study that looked at the peer-review process in biomedicine concluded, “Our study strongly suggests that peer reviewers cannot judge scientific merit independent of gender. The peer reviewers over-estimated male achievements and/or underestimated female performance”. Biases against minorities as well as the need to confirm one’s own prejudices about what an ‘ideal’ scientist looks like are common theories to explain such results. These hostile environments also shape the pathways and opportunities made available to women. A study showed that STEM faculty at research-intensive universities were more likely to hire and mentor a male lab manager, as well as pay and rate him higher than an equally competent female candidate.
Skewed perceptions of job performance also prevent women from being promoted to higher positions. A study shows that students rate female lecturers, especially junior ones, 37 slots below male ones. The study controlled for course materials, the final grades of the students, as well as the number of contact hours. Disturbingly, this effect is reproduced when the course is online. When online course instructors are given a male identity, evaluations are far more positive.
Strides have been made at improving gender equality. However, there are still huge challenges to come. Acknowledging that there is a sexism issue in STEM is surprisingly difficult. A paper published in 2015 revealed that male STEM faculty preferred research that disproved the existence of a gender bias in science, despite it being fabricated for the purposes of the experiment.
Continuing to raise awareness around the issue, and taking pragmatic action such as anonymising peer-review and application processes may help improve gender representation. Providing student and professional networks for women in STEM, like WISE, is also invaluable.
To conclude, we asked the University’s WISE Committee for their thoughts: “To help benefit our society and its future development, we should encourage and promote science and engineering. Especially, we should try to minimise the prejudice that still emerges against women pursuing a career in STEM related fields. This will ultimately allow us to work better in unison, enabling technical and scientific challenges to be overcome”.