Does STEM Have a Problem with Women?

Gender Inequality

Does STEM Have a Problem with Women?


While in recent decades women’s participation in the labour market has significantly increased, wide gender gaps still persist. Broadly speaking, women’s working conditions tend to be worse, particularly remuneration; glass ceilings often block career progress, stifling motivation; and achievement goes less recognised, denting morale. Job opportunity, too, is restricted, some areas of work demarcated, implicitly, if not explicitly, as ‘men’s only’. Make no mistake: equality of the sexes is still some way off.

Despite many well-intentioned attempts to rectify this inequity and, it should be said, an overarching, albeit slow, move in the right direction, there remain some intransigent areas refusing to budge. Of the guilty parties, the STEM disciplines, especially, stand out as having much to answer for. As way of evidence: in 2018, in the U.S, just 24% of those employed in STEM were women, while in Germany, Europe’s engineering hub, the proportion of women aged 30 to 34 with a STEM qualification fell from 6% in 2005 to only 2.6% in 2016.

Such disparity in any area would be troubling, but given the general trend towards digitalisation, and as a consequence, the greater need for technological skills, the issue is even more acute. STEM skills are no longer just requisites for STEM jobs, and because, statistically, far fewer women possess them than men, their career options are unfairly limited. Without change they will reduce further; significantly, at a time when the job market is becoming less and less forgiving. Evidently, this must be dealt with, sooner, rather than later. But like any problem, to solve it requires an understanding of where it’s originating from. With respect to STEM, this will help explain why, despite considerable effort, equality in the workforce has proved so elusive, and then, in turn, help inform a better strategy to finally overcome it.

Back to the start

Taking the US as a case study and the problems pertaining to STEM are seen arising early, manifesting in a stigma young girls attach to the study of maths. Research has shown that from around fifth grade, that is 10/11 years old, girls begin to underestimate their capabilities in the subject, while boys of the same age begin to overestimate theirs. According to researchers from New York University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and West Chester University, this can, in part, be attributed to teachers who as early as kindergarten start to perceive boys’ maths ability as superior to girls’, regardless of actual levels of achievement. The ‘girls can’t do maths’ nonsense is one of the oldest sexist tropes going and its consequence, when impressed upon the young, can be a malignant internalisation of imagined inadequacy. It is consolidated by the teacher bias, which although in many cases unconscious, can be read as a reflection of a broader culture reluctant to fully let go of restrictive ‘traditional’ gender roles.

The relative scarcity of female role models in STEM, so important for young people to pin ambitions onto, then compounds this issue. Whether at the top of industry or portrayed in film and television they are rare, and when they do appear in the media are normally depicted as subordinate to male characters, often creating more problems than they solve – think Julianne Moore in Jurassic Park: A Lost World. This is of great significance. As social cognitive theory contends: “repeated observation of symbolic models, such as those found in media environments, teaches cultural patterns of behaviours’ and ‘through the process of ‘identificatory learning’ viewers learn to imitate behaviours from media characters they observe”. The conspicuous underrepresentation of women in STEM in popular culture, therefore, serves to strengthen the notion that it really is man’s domain.

Within such a culture, it’s hardly surprising that many opt out of STEM subjects at the first possible opportunity. In actual fact, at each developmental period, from adolescence, emerging adulthood, to professional life, the underrepresentation becomes disproportionately more severe – a pattern sufficiently alarming it’s been given a name, researchers, Nilanjana Dasgupta and Jane G. Stout, calling it ‘the leaky pipeline’.

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Does STEM have a problem with women

Heading to Work

Within the world of work the pipeline maintains its potency, ensuring that gender disparity worsens with increasing seniority. Engineers, especially, have it bad; indeed, the retention of women in the field has always been a problem. Numerous studies have been undertaken to ascertain the reasons behind this. Perhaps the most comprehensive was published in Frontiers of Psychology in 2017, and involved a sample of 1464 women, all of whom had left the engineering field. The study used qualitative analyses to understand, categorise and code the 1,863 statements’ participants gave. The reasons cited were then reduced to 3 main concerns:

First, poor and/or inequitable compensation, bad working conditions, inflexible and demanding work environment that made work-family balance difficult; second, unmet achievement needs that reflected a dissatisfaction with effective utilization of their math and science skills, and third, unmet needs with regard to recognition at work and adequate opportunities for advancement.

Of all reasons named, those relating to a work-life imbalance stood out in their frequency. Particularly those with young children mentioned the difficulty of reconciling a rigorous 40-plus-hour week with childcare. Because employers’ maternity packages are often limited and part-time work in engineering is notoriously hard to come by, many women having children simply left the field. Unequal compensation was next on the list of reasons for leaving, numerous participants complaining that not only was there clear evidence of a glass ceiling preventing career development but also that male colleagues of the same skill level were on a higher salaries. This led to demotivation, despondency and then departure. Workplace culture was also reported as influencing exit. Perhaps typifying this reasoning was one woman who described her former employer as an ‘old boys club’ that had ‘been run for so many years by white men… that these guys had no idea how to integrate women into their organisation.’

Lack of recognition played a key role too. It was reported that early on in training engineers are taught to recognise two disparate skill sets: hard skills, comprised of technical ability and problem solving; and soft skills, sometimes known as professional, that include teamwork, communication and relationship building. Crucially, it is also taught that the two sets are gendered: the hard viewed as masculine, sought-after and revered; and the soft viewed as feminine and commanding a lower status. Although not always, the study provides evidence that women, mentored by men, are often guided in the direction of positions that require softer skills, and thus carry less prestige. Many believed this reinforced the stereotype that female engineers are less technically capable, which, however retrograde, is still pervasive. Of the interviewees previously employed in these ‘softer’ areas, some went as far as saying they never felt like ‘a real engineer’, such was the lack of respect for what they did.

What can be done?

Given their reputation as problem solving disciplines it’s curious that with this particular conundrum STEM has proven so inept. Construct a building almost a kilometre tall, it can do; welcome women into its classrooms and workforce and it’s stumped. Clearly, some of its problems simply mirror society’s. The gender stereotyping that damages children’s ability to assess their own capabilities, for instance, can hardly be put at the door of an engineering institution – that is a problem in which we are all implicated.

At the same time, there does seem to be something particular about STEM that exacerbates gender prejudice, prevents corrective steps being taken, and is, therefore, requiring of our immediate attention. An obvious first point is its lack of female role models. There needs to be greater exposure of women who have succeeded in STEM, their achievements must be told and their stories celebrated. (Here the Women’s Engineering Society is doing much admirable work, laying out a useful blueprint.) To the same end, female-mentoring programmes, in universities and workplaces, should also be implemented, providing – when necessary – support and advice to help navigate any particularly male-dominated environments.

In dealing with its broader culture, it’s imperative STEM institutions facilitate frank discussion of the implicit biases they currently perpetuate, address the pay gap they’ve allowed to persist, and re-evaluate their gendered division of key tasks. Although on their own not enough, these steps would set a good precedent – the beginnings of a roadmap. To fully achieve the transformative change needed, so belatedly, STEM will be forced to draw upon all its diagnostic, creative and pragmatic skills, for which it is so heralded. And it should start now; there is much to do.