by Jilian Woods
Women have always taken a backseat to their male counterparts in math and science careers. Despite the steady rise in women entering STEM fields since the 19th century, women still have to work tirelessly to prove that they are in fact cut out to share the scientific world with men.
Let’s take a look at the facts. A 2007 study analysed the effects of women’s gender identification and gender stereotyping on their math scores. Gender stereotyping refers to the notion that men and women have distinct roles and sets of characteristics. Traditionally, for instance, men have been associated with strength, power and work outside of the home, while women have been associated with the home and caring for others, including children. Gender identification refers to the degree to which an individual conforms to or defies a particular gender stereotype. The researchers found that implicit — but not explicit — gender stereotyping interacted with gender identification in such a manner as to affect the women’s performances on the final exams as well as their overall desires to seek to pursue a career in a math-related field. Those who had high scores on both counts, on the other hand, were least likely to seek a math-based career.
Despite these challenges, women actually outnumber men in certain STEM fields. According to the UK-based Higher Education Statistics Agency, the majority of students in a number of scientific degree-granting programs in Britain are women, including: 69% of all students studying medical technology-related degrees; 79% of all students studying psychology; 63% of all students studying zoology; 57% of all students studying genetics; 56% of all students studying microbiology. These numbers are impressive and continue to rise. However, there is a substantial disconnect between the number of STEM degrees women earn and the number of women occupying high positions in either the workplace or in academia. For instance, in 2016, just 21% of all workers in STEM occupations were women — down from 22% in 2015. And the Royal Society of Biology found that during the 2011-12 academic year, 61% of bioscience postgraduate students were women, but only 15% of all bioscience professors were.
So where are all the STEM-degree-earning women? This is the so-called “leaky pipeline” problem — the fact that at each stage of advancement toward scientific careers, women drop out at higher rates than men. This phenomenon is not unique to STEM, but it is seen in business, politics, law, and other fields, too. Various reasons for this problem exist. Thanks to well-entrenched bias (whether implicit or explicit), women struggle to find work in their respective fields at greater rates than their male counterparts, even when they have the same credentials. In other cases, women were discouraged from scientific careers due to the conditions of their employment. A 2013 House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report found that women as well as men disliked the lack of job stability, the incessant pressure to publish and increase research output, and the long working hours required of professional scientists. Short-term contracts and pressure to move also made STEM work less attractive than jobs in other industries.
Because of social norms that assign women the primary responsibility for child-rearing, women often take time off from their professional careers to have and care for children. These familial obligations can cause women in STEM to see their careers sidetracked indefinitely. Men, incidentally, don’t seem to have this problem, since they tend to select spouses and partners who stay home and tend to their children.
Other evidence suggests that women are, in fact, using their STEM knowledge and skills, but not in traditional scientific jobs. The Royal Society of Biology has found that
[M]any women who leave academic careers are keen to remain in a science-related area… Employers include science-based industries (in both research and development and management areas), learned societies, publishers, research funders, medical charities, or education charities. Additionally, some female scientists go into teaching and other professions such as banking, law and accountancy.
It is possible that women are entering these other careers because they offer more job security or provide other employment conditions that are more compatible with also having a family. Thus, the key to ensuring that women make it through lower level schooling, into college, and on to successful careers isn’t just working harder or practicing successful studying. Ensuring the burden of childcare is shared more equally between men and women, and that there is access to affordable childcare is equally important. Such access could empower women in STEM who often — not unlike their male counterparts — wish to have both a successful career and a fulfilling family life.
Attending to the unique challenges facing women of colour, LGBT women, working-class women, and other historically oppressed groups is also important in making sure all women will continue to rise through the ranks of math and science careers. These women — burdened doubly by the social disadvantage of their gender as well as their race, religion, class, immigration status, or sexual orientation — may require unique solutions in order to ensure they progress through their STEM field of choice along with their peers. Alongside changing workplaces, changing social attitudes and developing positive role models for women in STEM is also important. There are plenty of women who have made important contributions to science: Marie Sklodowska Curie, Rosalind Franklin, Mae Jemison, Catherine Johnson, and Rachel Carson, to name a few. As society begins to accept science as a space in which men and women alike can operate, old biases might eventually fall away. And as more women start seeing STEM as a viable and acceptable career option, more women will pursue work in the field. Keeping them there will require not only a change of perception but also real adjustments and effort on the part of employers and social policy makers.
Jilian Woods is a master’s student in journalism at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University. She is a freelance journalist, writer, and copywriter. Her work appears in various online publications, including The Daily Touch, Times Higher Education, Elephant Journal, and society19.