Gender Stereotypes in STEM

The number of women in professional fields has increased over the past decades due to the continuous fight to provide them with equal access to job opportunities. Despite the growth, there are still few women scientists and engineers across the world. Previous studies showed that women are underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) occupations.

Built By Me, an online site that is dedicated to using STEM technologies as a platform to help children build the skills they need, reported that 72 percent of men are in STEM fields while there are only 28 percent women.

Despite this, more and more women are getting interested in this line of work. Reports showed that there has been an increasing number of women who are choosing to study STEM subjects in college. In the past decade, the number of women who are awarded STEM degrees annually has increased by over 50,000.

However, the gender gap in STEM fields persists and is continuously rising. This is because the number of men choosing STEM subjects is also rapidly increasing.

It is growing much faster than the number of women. From 25 percent of women with STEM degrees, it has dropped to 24 percent. If the trend continues, this percentage can get lower in the next years.

Reports also showed that there are fewer women of color in STEM fields. About 86 percent are white or Asian of all-female doctorate graduates in these fields while Latinas and black women only represent 4 percent and 3 percent, respectively. While underrepresentation continues to be a problem, there is another problem in STEM fields: unequal pay.

It was reported that female workers earn less than men even in such high-paying positions like STEM. In every dollar that men in STEM make, women are paid an average of 89 cents. The wage gap is even larger in some fields. For instance, female chemists earn 30 percent less than male chemists.

Why Women in STEM Are Underrepresented

There are a lot of reasons why the underrepresentation of women in STEM remains. One of these revolves around gender stereotypes. It was widely believed that boys are better at spatial tasks while girls are better at verbal recall tasks. However, a meta-analysis of gender differences in mathematics found out that girls outperformed boys overall in primary school. A study showed by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) reported that stereotype threat continues to be a burden to women in STEM. It usually happens in situations where a negative stereotype is relevant to evaluating performance.

In taking a math test, female students are usually the ones who experience an extra cognitive and emotional burden related to the stereotype that women are no good at math. This can heavily affect their test performances. Although many people claim that this stereotype doesn’t exist anymore, it was shown that even these individuals are unconsciously holding gender and science stereotypes. Unfortunately, these implicit biases can be more powerful than conscious beliefs.

Even in gender-neutral countries such as Norway and Sweden, the proportion of men in STEM-related careers are higher than women. The Guardian, a British online website, reported that a study of 1,327 Swedish secondary school students found out that the difference can be explained by “social belongingness.” Social belongingness refers to how teens often feel they would fit in better in subjects that are somehow related to their gender.

It can also be explained by “self-efficacy” or the belief that people can succeed in a domain. For instance, a lot of us choose the path where we feel we are competent, avoiding those we are not confidently pursuing. It was found out that despite outperforming boys across school subjects, women had much lower self-efficacy ratings in STEM. This shows that women often succumb to the stereotype that they are not capable of these subjects.

Systematic Underrepresentation

A recent study conducted by the New York Stem Cell Foundation Research Institute (NYSCF) and the University of Michigan reported that aside from policies supporting women in STEM fields, more than 500 institutions lack promotion, recruitment, and retention of women to senior roles. Using the NYSCF Institutional Report Card for Gender Equality (Report Card), the researchers evaluated the representation of women in STEM in those institutions over the past four years.

According to an article by Phys.org, an internet portal that provides the latest news on science, the findings of the study showed that representation of women in STEM decreased as seniority increases, despite being well-represented amongst undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate students. From over 50 percent of each factor, it declines to an average of 42 percent of assistant professors, 34.2 percent of associate professors, and 23.4 percent of full professors. This suggests that the problem in the underrepresentation of women in STEM is their retention and promotion into positions that will allow them to gain influence, resources, and in turn, high-impact research.

Of all the institutions evaluated, it was found out that there have been no significant or systematic changes in their institutional practices over time. As NYSCF CEO Susan L. Solomon, JD said, ‘To reach treatments and cures, we need full participation in science and medicine. When women are prevented from reaching their full potential, the entire field suffers. We need 100% of the available brainpower to make the biggest impact and move research forward as quickly as possible.’

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