I am a fan of the CBS television show, The Big Bang Theory. Though frequently exaggerating the personality traits of scientists and engineers, it hits the mark often enough to make it genuinely funny to those of us who love and live with those in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Featuring three physicists and one engineer who often experience difficulty adjusting to the non-STEM world, The Big Bang Theory cast includes two successful women scientists. These women are equally as dedicated to their fields as the men, but they do not get to do the cool stuff like travel into outer space or send a signal around the world that comes back and turns on their apartment lamp, or even, to my knowledge, and I have seen a lot of episodes, present a paper at a conference. They are, however, depicted as smart, serious scientists and, more importantly, beauty and sexual attraction are a minor part of their characters.
In fact, the United States is falling behind in recruiting and educating scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. According to the 2009 Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, while women comprise 48 % of the work force, only 24% of those employed in STEM fields are women, about one- half of what might be expected if gender representation IN STEM professions mirrored the overall workforce. Asia, India, and the Middle East send their best students, including women, to study at American universities, while American companies are frequently forced to turn to foreign born scientists and engineers to fill vacant technology positions. American born students are often under-represented in engineering and science programs, especially at the graduate level. How did this happen? Why are we not educating enough scientists, engineers, and mathematicians to meet our needs in an increasingly high tech world?
One of the answers lies in our failure to interest, educate, hire, and retain women in these fields. We have historically ignored or discouraged half of our population. How does this gender gap continue fifty years after the passage of Title IX mandating, as part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, equal access to college resources, not only in athletics, but also in academics?
One reason is the perceived notion that females genetically lack spatial abilities, a critical component for success in science and engineering. According to a September 16, 2010 article in Science Daily, spatial skills are easily developed when children of both sexes are encouraged to learn and use these skills.
According to Marie Planchard, Director of Education Community for SolidWorks Educational Products, the toys and games chosen by adults for boys lead them toward interest in STEM fields, while girls are slowly encouraged toward other fields. Such trends continue in the classroom, as teachers subtly encourage boys toward STEM interests and girls in other directions.
The metaphor of a “leaky pipeline” is often used with respect to the lack of women in STEM. It begins with elementary, middle, and high school where boys are expected to be more active and are given greater freedom than girls to ask questions and problem solve on their own. Therefore, by the time girls reach middle and high school they are less confident in their math and science abilities and frequently do not take the advanced math classes needed to qualify for STEM majors in college. Add to this substantial social pressure not to be “too smart,” and by the time girls reach just the 8th grade only one-half of girls are interested in STEM and this number continues to fall as they near high school graduation.
According to several published studies, such as that of Schmader and Johns published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2003, not wishing to confirm negative stereotyping by ones peer group causes additional stress, consuming cognitive energy leading to lowering performance and underestimation of women’ and girls’ abilities.
Popular culture also plays a potent role in socializing both boys and girls. For instance the publication of a Barbie book, entitled I Can Be a Computer Engineer, in which Barbie is, indeed, a computer engineer, but she turns to a male engineer to help her solve a difficult problem. More seriously, we have witnessed “gamer gate” in which women gamers have been harassed in quite vile terms by misogynist male gamers.
Another factor is presumed interest. Parents and teachers tend to presume girls are interested in the social sciences and the helping professions, while boys are interested in computers and science. The exception to this is biology and medicine where interest is presumed by both boys and girls.
One of the factors tied to academic and career success in many professional fields is the presence of mentors and role models. Female role models in STEM fields are scarce even in college. Furthermore, we tend to mentor those who are more like us, women who choose careers in male dominated fields may have difficulty establishing those relationships. This may be particularly true with minority girls and women.
While numbers of women graduating in engineering has increased 100 fold in the past four decades, women who enter engineering programs are quite likely to be in the minority, often as much five to one. Such minority status leads to a sense of isolation and negative stereotyping.
Isolation and stereotyping of computer programing as a white male career was cited by Selana Larson’s September, 2014 article, “Why so Few Women Are Studying Computer Science,” as one of the reasons that women earn just 18% of the undergraduate degrees awarded in computer science.
Although outright discrimination is illegal, women in college and the work force may be the victims of more covert discrimination in fields usually thought to be male oriented and mostly dominated at managerial levels by men. According to a 2011 study by Gaucher et. al, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, job advertisements for fields that are male dominated tend to use words such as “leader” or “goal-oriented,” characteristics associated with men. Women are more likely to be described in more communal terms, i.e. “collaborative,” and “team player.” Such stereotypes are reflected in letters of recommendation and hiring decisions both in industry and academia.
As a woman’s career continues in STEM, the pipeline may leak as she encounters the “glass ceiling.” As fewer women are represented at her level, isolation increases, as well as salary disparities. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (2010), among all workers under age 34 women earn 90% of men’s earnings. However, overall women ages 35 to 64 earn 80% or less of men’s wages.
Wage disparity reflects factors many professional women encounter, including lack of employer support with family issues, including parental leave for both mothers and fathers, maintaining a home/workplace balance, and travel schedules. These issues are not unique to the United States. During a panel discussion of women in STEM in Great Britain carried on BBC America in November, 2014, a number cited lack of family friendly policies in the work place as contributing to increased stress and difficulty being promoted.
Still, despite all of these factors, women are becoming scientists, mathematicians, and engineers in increasing numbers. In the next article concerning women in STEM, we will look at some of the factors fueling this movement, as well as interviews with women working in the field and those who support and mentor them along the way.
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