Women in STEM Disciplines

By Marwa Najah.

Female microbiologist

There’s a longstanding history of perpetuating stereotypes onto what it means to be feminine. Women are consistently branded with false statements of their innate nurturing qualities, excessively emotional temperament and of course, their inability to comprehend any maths. With women making only 28% of the world’s researchers, you cannot help but see the low figure as a reflection of forced notions of femininity.

Recently, Marvel Studios announced a competition which attempts to encourage girls to get involved in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) disciplines. The winner will be offered an internship from Marvel and a tour of Dolby Laboratories. It’s important to address that the problem is not within women for a change. Young girls have shown to be just as interested in STEM subjects as boys. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found: “When girls enter STEM subjects at GCSE level at school, results from 2015 show they continue to outperform boys. GCSE results from 2015 show that in construction, 100 per cent of girls entered achieved an A* to C grade.” This is a stark contrast to recent statistics from Women in Science, Technology and Engineering (WISE) which show that 15 per cent of engineering graduates are female.

So why don’t girls progress to become engineers or scientists? The interest is evidently there. A much bigger social issue is at hand: Women are not raised to pursue a career that doesn’t place them in the role of nurturer.

Female scientists have little presence in the public consciousness. Emily Temple-Wood, an aspiring biologist, has taken on the role of Wikipedia contributor. She’s spoken out against the male bias on Wikipedia’s science pages, pointing to the as-then non-existent profiles of scientists, like cytogeneticist Barbara McClinton and computer scientist Fatimata Seye Sylia. Temple-Wood told The Huffington Post,“I got pissed and wrote a whole article that night. I literally sat in the dorm until 2am writing the first woman in science article.”

Former Wikimedia Foundation member said: “When I was a kid, I could count the number of women scientists I was aware of on one hand.” The limited female role models indirectly limit young girls. This doesn’t just affect a girl’s perception of herself, but also the way boys grow up to view women. Like girls, boys absorb the roles we place on women. A male reporter asked six scientists picked by the Russian programme: “How will you deal with being without makeup for eight days?” Their career in STEM is viewed as a role that opposes their femininity because it deviates from what we are taught from an early age.

The perception of femininity manifests into the education system. If girls manage to overcome their unfamiliarity in the field, they then experience hardships in education. In STEM classes, young girls experience prejudice from male students. Research from the Department of Anthropology in the University of Washington found male students identified other males are more intelligent than their female counterparts. The study concluded, women with a 3.75 Grade Point Average (GPA) and a man with a 3.00 (GPA), had equal chances of being nominated the smartest in the class by a male student.

The prejudice continues to job selection. Skidmore College conducted a randomized double-blind study, which gave a science faculty two identical CVs of a fictitious student, randomly assigned a male or female name, found that both male and female staff rated the male applicant as more hireable than the woman. This reflects the indoctrination of gender roles, shaped socially, rather than the disinterest of girls in STEM.

The reason the prejudice continues to prevail is because there is a refusal to acknowledge women are not treated as equal to men. The University of North Florida used the abstract of Skidmore College’s study and gave it to male scientists. Two versions were produced: One provided genuine evidence for gender bias in STEM fields, and the other was modified to show no gender bias. The men thought the altered study was more reputable.

Female scholarships won’t solve the problem. The changing role of women is a lifelong project. For now, teachers and faculty members need to be aware of their preconceived ideas of femininity. How can we expect change to happen if the sex that dominates STEM fields doesn’t recognise there’s a problem? By having an awareness of it, they can avoid acting on their prejudices.

 

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