When one thinks of STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and people who specialize in said areas of expertise, perhaps a reflex reaction is to think of male experts. At least, that’s what society has conditioned us to do when celebrating scientists’ accolades. However, it is also due to the fact that statistically, more men pursue such specializations. Indeed, this perception that women do not and cannot excel in such disciplines as much as (if not more than) their male counterparts is archaic.
Scholars and policymakers alike have highlighted that the fields of STEM and emerging technologies have remained predominantly male. Moreover, historically low participation among women has been prevalent since the origins of said fields, in the 18th century – an era known as the Age of Enlightenment or the Age of Reason.
There is a multitude of reasons for the comparatively low numbers of women in STEM fields. The following article attempts to explore a mere fraction of these determinants.
Stereotypes – are belief systems that include attitudes toward female and male societal roles, and female and male occupations. As bipolar paradigms, gender stereotypes suggest that what is masculine is not feminine and vice versa.
The conventional scientist in a STEM profession is usually thought to be male. Women in STEM fields may not fit the perception of what a scientist, engineer, or mathematician should look like and may thus be disregarded or castigated.
Discrimination – while both men and women who work in “nonconformist” professions may experience discrimination, the forms and consequences of said discrimination may differ between genders. In fact, according to Londa Schiebinger, women are twice as likely to leave jobs in science and engineering than men. Individuals of a specific gender are often perceived to be better suited for certain careers or areas of study than those of the other gender. In fact, many job advertisements that tend to be targeted towards male-dominated careers, have a tendency use words such as “leader” and “goal-oriented’’. Quite a disheartening fact for women who aspire to shatter the axiomatic glass ceiling.
Mentorship – in STEM fields, the support and encouragement of a mentor can be a decisive factor in women’s decisions. Whether for the good or bad, the impact could determine if a woman persists in her career pursuit within the discipline. This may be even more relevant for younger generations who may face several obstacles in the onset of their profession. Younger people usually look up to their superiors for help and guidance, and the responsiveness and value of their mentors is incredibly important and can be a make-or-break situation.
Lack of Support – quite possibly, even if already involved in STEM subjects, women may face big enough challenges that force them to leave. This could be due to sexually discriminating standards, strict working conditions, the perceived need to hide pregnancies (for fear of being disregarded for a promotion), and the struggle to balance work and family life. Women who have children in this field either need childcare or the leeway of a longer leave of absence/maternity leave – which might not always be possible.
If a nuclear family cannot afford childcare, it is usually the mother who sacrifices her career to take care of the children. This is mostly due to the fact that statistically, women are paid less than men for the same job. Thus, the cycle continues: the man makes more money, continues work and climbs the career ladder, whereas the woman gives up her career because it makes the most financial sense. Moreover, few companies offer paternity leave for fathers, and even ones which do (which is a rarity), said leave is usually considerably shorter than women’s maternity leave. If paternity leaves were longer, this would allow women to go back to work and get back on track in their career aspirations.
Innate vs. Learned Skills – studies suggest the explanation that STEM subjects are considered by both teachers and students to require a more ‘natural’ ability rather than skills that can be taught or learned. This preconceived idea, combined with a propensity to view women as having ‘lesser’ innate abilities, has made researchers conclude that women are seen as less competent for STEM positions – even if in actuality they are not. To substantiate this theory, in a study conducted by Ellis, Fosdick and Rasmussen , it was determined that without strong skills in calculus, women are unable to perform as well as men in any STEM subject. As a result, this leads to fewer women pursuing the same career prospects.
As science and technology has evolved and advanced, women have always played a crucial role within STEM subjects. Albeit, at times such contributions have been overlooked, downplayed or worse off, forgotten. Unsurprisingly, recent European statistics show that only 18% percent of employees in the ICT sector in Europe are female. Yet, in the sector of education, a whopping 70% of employees are women. While this by no means implies women should not pursue the vocation of teaching, it begs to question why such huge percentage gap is present. Unfortunately, such a trend owes to the fact that women tend to lack confidence in technical subjects such as coding, using programmes and apps. This highlights a significant problem, and perpetuates the tendency of a male-dominated sector. It is exactly why more women are needed in science. Not only because they are as capable as men, but because younger female generations are in dire need of same-gender role models to admire, as well as follow suit.
Having equal access to education is a fundamental human right, STEM subjects, are of no exception. Yet, we still encounter a science gender gap to this present day. Less than 30% of global researchers are female and such under-representation occurs in every part in the world. In schools, it is almost a norm for males to study and specialize in STEM subjects, eventually progressing to read for STEM degrees at university.
Granted, on the global forefront, more girls are in school today than ever before. But this does not negate the fact that they still face the challenge of lacking the same opportunities as boys to benefit from an education of their preference. Biases, gender norms and societal expectations are but a few of the influencing factors that greatly impact the quality of education girls and women receive. As a result, the cycle continues and females are held back to pursue opportunities in which they would have otherwise excelled.
Ultimately, it is up to everyone – irrespective of gender – to fight this battle of breaking barriers. Only then will societal misconceptions change and allow women to reach their full potential should they wish to study STEM subjects in the hopes of climbing the career ladder.