The Lack of Women in STEM Fields Explained
The 21st century is filled with technological innovations and inventions and saying that the tech industry is peaking would be an understatement. There is an abundant amount of growth potential in the tech fields, especially more so in the STEM fields, science, technology, engineering, and math. With these growing fields comes plenty of career opportunities that should be available and suitable for anyone – men and women. However, that is not the case, women are few in these fields. From the beginning of the existence of STEM fields, they have been controlled by males. In a balanced world, these fields should reflect roughly the same number of men and women. Bearing in mind that the world has only seen a male-controlled society it is expected to see some majority in males holding positions in STEM fields. Sadly, females represent less than 25% of the STEM fields as depicted in the graphic (see figure 1). The small number of females in STEM industries is due to gender stereotypes, the low number of female role models in the STEM environment, the lack of understanding for familial obligations in the STEM environment, and STEM industry recruiters taking part in actions that diminish women’s STEM interests. Obviously, the STEM industry is lacking in female employees, and as a result there are limited role models for adolescent women in these fields. Furthermore, women are pushed away from careers in STEM due to recruiters taking part in female demeaning and gendered presentation responsibilities as well as male dominated geek culture references. Ultimately, it is very important for the STEM industry to push an agenda that includes women and creates an environment where women can join career as easily as men can.
Society is stuck in continuing gender stereotyping which causes adolescent girls to create a false understanding of what they can and cannot do. In the world we live in today, people associate intellect with men far more than they do with women. Considering that the majority of worlds dominant positions like politicians and heads of companies are men, it is understandable why this assumption that men are smarter than women is made. These stereotypes force young girls to believe that they don’t have the abilities to be in dominant positions of power because they are not smart enough. This wrong thinking is harming the success of young women. The STEM industry is known for its rigor and thus those that work in those fields are seen as smart. Consequently, young girls that are in an environment where only men are in STEM fields, have no other option but to believe that they cannot do those jobs. This harmful environment shapes specific interests in adolescent girls and forces them to steer clear from the interests that are “more suitable” for boys. This environment that we live in has been studied and it has been proven that girls do not think they are as smart as boys. In the study it was found that six year old girls are less likely to believe that their gender is really smart. Furthermore, the same girls were found to stay away from passions and activities that were for children who were really smart. (Bian 2017). It is not surprise that these stereotypes have a major part in the mental growth and understanding in young girls. In short, young men and women are living in an environment where they see vastly different opportunities, abilities, and potential. The fact is, young men are privileged to witness other men participating in a vast variety of jobs including dominant positions, and positions in STEM. However, young women see the majority of working women in a few different fields – school teachers, clerical assistants, and domestic workers. Ultimately, gender stereotypes are highly demotivating young women from forming passions for positions that do not have many role model figures.
The STEM industry underrepresents females and thus there is a major lack of role models that inspire young women. Think about a woman that works extremely hard and becomes a part of the STEM workforce; that woman will now have a load of new challenges ahead of her to gain importance, and a position of power within that workspace. The fact is that without female role models, the STEM industry will remain locked in a male dominated cycle. Women leaders are absolutely necessary for the success of women, especially in areas where they aren’t adequately represented. There was a study done to see what are the major factors that contribute to the success of women in STEM related majors in school. It was found that, “… female ‘role models’ (and other supporters) are beneficial for female students, and … the mere presence of women in an occupation signals to young women that the occupation might be an appropriate choice for them,” (Sonnert, 2007). The same research study figured that women majoring in STEM related fields completed more degrees if their professors were women. As mentioned prior, working towards a position of high importance in the STEM industry is another major hurdle for women, however, the few women role models that are in this industry are very valuable and can be exceptional role models. Katherine Weber is a STEM teacher that wrote an article about the significance of role models. She suggested different ways that females in the STEM industry can play a motivating and encouraging role in the lives of young women. She states, “Female college students, faculty, and alumni who interact with high school students can convey positive images through visits, guest lectures, after-school programs, weekend workshops, and summer camps,” (Weber 2011). Women role models are essential in moving towards a world where men and women are represented equally not just in STEM fields but in all fields. Continuing further, it is important to understand that this shortage in female role models is caused by the lack of flexibility that STEM workplace employers offer females when it comes to family obligations.
Females that are currently in the STEM workforce have a hard time managing their family responsibilities and obligations. It is important to understand that STEM careers are notorious for having very high expectations of their workforce – a trait that makes giving time to family and other responsibilities outside of work difficult. This lack of flexibility mostly affects women because they are the ones that will bear children and take care of them most of the time. There was a study done that gauged what influences women to go into the STEM industry and what influences them to leave it (Heilbronner, 2012). The study depicted that females around age thirty found it hard to secure STEM jobs that permitted enough flexibility for family responsibilities. Heilbronner states, “A greater proportion of older women mentioned leaving STEM because of a lack of flexible hours and needing to attend to family responsibilities,” (2012). The study suggests that if a woman decides she wants to have children, it will be hard for her to stay relevant in her STEM career and take time off simultaneously. The lack of flexibility and understanding in STEM industries is not the only reason why women steer clear, the actions of STEM industry recruiters also add to the gender division in STEM.
Females that are in search of jobs are pushed away from the STEM fields by the job recruiters. The STEM industry is known for conducting large information sessions for recruitment especially at colleges and universities. During these sessions, employers present their companies and provide important information about job roles. Sadly, the majority of STEM companies fail at showing inclusivity and gender equality during these sessions. During the presentations, most of the presenters are males. Moreover, the men in the room are the ones that speak about the most important information, suggesting that women aren’t capable of explaining it. On the off chance that there are females representing a company, they are often only helping with the setup of the presentation. In a study done to see the gender divide during these STEM recruitment sessions, it was found that “…male presenters shared the spotlight with one another, while female company representatives set up the food and decorations, handed out t-shirts, and collected resumes, often without ever speaking or being introduced to the audience…” (Wynn 2018). Additionally, this research showed that more than 80% of presentations were run by males, about a quarter of the presentations had no female participants at all, more than half of the presentations had females in disregarded roles only, and only 4% of the presentations involved females that presented the main important pieces of information (Wynn 2018). The stats prove the extent to which these recruiting sessions depict patriarchy in the STEM workforce. Thus, it is no surprise that females seriously consider other employment after leaving these info sessions. Along with the male dominance seen in presentations, male recruiters partake in male geek culture references and jokes that aren’t catered for women.
Geek culture refers to the kind of culture that surrounds male individuals that have interests in things like Star Wars, programming, and tetris – “geeky” things. The majority of individuals that take part in geek culture are males and thus making an abundant amount of geek culture references during recruitment session would prove to be harmful in attracting females. There was a research study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University that hoped to find an answer to why Carnegie Mellon’s computer science and IT departments were almost exclusively filled with males. This study found that before 1999, the computer science program was full of ‘geeky’ males, and this caused female students to feel unwelcomed and they left the computer science program. Interestingly though, in 2002 many females joined the computer science major. This prompted a series of interviews which found that the new entrants “seemed to be constructing a new identity that was “geeky” and feminine” (Frieze 2011). This quote and research study proves that women had to adopt a male culture while keeping their femininity to be able to gain acceptance among other male students in the program – which is unfair. In light of this information, STEM information session presenters should exercise great caution while portraying geek culture references because they exclude women from that conversation. Ultimately, geek culture references do not show women that a certain workplace is welcoming of women and understanding of gender equality.
The STEM industry should receive credit for pushing innovations and technology to achieve great feats. The industry has proven time and time again that it is growing and offers plenty of room to grow for individuals who choose to pursue careers in it. However, the fact that an industry that is so technical and adept fails at something so easy and ethically just is frankly quite sad. This industry, that is recognized for its technological advancements now needs to be held accountable for showing its advancements in inclusivity and gender equality. The fact is, the STEM workplace is losing out on an incredible asset – the input of hard-working and sharp women. To recap, due to gender stereotyping there aren’t many women in the STEM workplace because society thinks those jobs are only for men. The limited number of females in STEM jobs does not allow for a substantial amount of role models that are so important for inspiring young girls. Moreover, STEM employers are unjustly rigid with employees’ family responsibilities. Lastly, the STEM industry recruiters push away most women from their companies because of their gendered presenter roles (showing women are not as capable/respected) and mentions regarding geek culture that is mostly understood by men. The greatest solution to this widespread issue is to encourage women that are already in STEM fields to become role models for young girls in whatever ways they can. In a perfect world, I hope that the men in the STEM industry start to realize their faults and are held accountable for their perpetuation of gender stereotypes.