Chances are, if you've been on the internet over the past few years, you have probably heard something about how little women there are in STEM. Stories about male dominated and toxic spaces are not uncommon, and they’re not exaggerating either. Women in general are more likely to have higher education, as found by the United States Census Bureau in 2019; 42 percent of women have bachelor's degrees compared to 36 percent of men. However, there is still a stark gender difference in STEM. In 2016, 7 percent of women who graduated from college graduated with degrees in STEM, and in the same year women only made up 37 percent of STEM graduates (Stockwell 17).
But why is there such a discrepancy? The answer lies in a series of positive feedback loops starting as early as elementary school. Children, being the sponges they are, absorb the messages they see in the world around them about who scientists and mathematicians are and what they look like. Despite this, little boys and girls score the same in blind graded assignments and show the same competence in science and math (Berwick 19). However, teachers’ implicit bias can shine through and affect the gender discrepancy in science and math. For example, a 2015 Israeli study showed that girls scored lower in exams compared to boys when they were graded with their names on the paper, as opposed to exams graded blindly, in which results were the same (Lavy & Sand 15). This discouragement of equally competent girls continues to harm involvement until they reach high school, where girls tend to take less advanced math and science courses compared to their male counterparts (Berwick 19). The same Berwick article continues that this trend continues into college, where less women enter STEM degrees. In college, the role model effect, which is when seeing authority figures that look like you in your field makes discouragement less likely, continues to be in play, as women see so few female professors. As for hiring, men have an implicit bias against women to think that they are less intelligent (Yurcaba 20), and because there are already more men in the field, less women are hired, making up only 28% of the workforce, as found by the American Association of University Women. Thus, a loop is formed where less women employed means less women deciding who gets hired. The people in the field decide who advances, who gets tenure, who gets hired, and a big part of who does well in the field in general. As for women who have achieved their PhD, achieving tenure is another struggle. In 2017, only 20% of tenured professorships in the physical sciences and 15% in engineering were for women (Thebaud & Taylor 21).
Frustration with the field means women leave for alternative careers, making the disparity worse (Fernandez 21). In fact, only 3 percent will continue to work in a STEM field 10 years after graduation, according to Million Women Mentors. As for women who stay in academia, scientific advisory boards, which give opportunities for research, collaboration, and further career advancement, have never been composed of more than 10 percent women (Fernandez 21). Women who are determined to rise through the ranks are often at a disadvantage because of this. It's a loop essentially, where less women advancing means less women on boards and thus less women advance, despite equal competence.
Additionally, one of the biggest deterrents to women having successful careers in STEM is motherhood. Women with children are seen as less competent and more occupied. Eric Kwon, Science and Technology Editor at the Bottom Line UCSB, writes there's an assumption that they will be less committed and productive, to the point where even young, unmarried women hide any plans for having children in the future for fear of being seen as less useful in their field. Of course, only women are being penalized because of their families, as men who start families are unaffected, while women progress less in their fields. This issue also intersects with tenure. Among professors who had children within five years of getting their PhDs, 77% of men achieved tenure within 12 years of getting their doctorate, but only 53% of women achieved the same success (Fernandez 21). Fernandez furthers that women often cite workplace stigma on motherhood as a deterrent for continuing their work in the field and trying for tenure. Despite this stigma, it's not actually backed by anything. Mothers in high ranking positions in STEM perform just as well as men do, yet they are penalized.
There is also the issue of the pay gap in STEM. Taking race into account as well, in general, white and asian women in STEM positions make 97 cents on the white man's dollar, with hispanic women making 91 and black women making 89 (Kettering Global 19). It's not that women are paid less for lesser positions either. The same Kettering Global article quantifies that 60% of the time men are offered more than women are offered for the exact same role at the same company. This issue is seen at every step of the ladder. At the bottom, entry level positions’ salaries in engineering and tech are 4,000 dollars higher for men than women (Binns 21). As for higher roles, like research positions, women in STEM fields are paid less for their research, publish less, and do not progress to senior academic and principal investigator levels at the same rates that men do (Fernandez 21). Additionally, less than 30 percent of researchers are female, creating an environment in which women are the vast minority and being paid very little, as found by the same Fernandez article. It goes on to say that women don’t advance to better paying roles at the same rate than men do, despite equal competence. Even women who see it all the way through and attain senior positions in their field only take home 88% of earnings compared to men. At every step of their career, there are inequalities and disparities for women in STEM. The odds are truly stacked against them, and it's crucial we increase the amount of women in stem, as this helps decrease the gender wage gap.
Despite the negative environment, there are auxiliary organizations that aid women in STEM. For example Million Woman Mentors is an organization that aims to find, as the name suggests, one million women already in stem to mentor young women through their stem careers and provide any support they need in order to not leave the field. There is also work being done to further clarify and shed light on disparities in STEM for women. The American Association of University Women does research to show particular barriers for women in STEM so that companies and governments can provide aid and institute reform. The Association for Women in Science is another organization that advocates for policy change on both large and small scales to ensure an equitable work environment for women across science careers. These are just a few organizations, and they do do amazing imperative work. However they are merely auxiliary, and progress is slow and painstaking. Women in STEM continue to be presented with barriers starting at the earliest stages of their education, making them one of the most resilient groups imaginable, but they shouldn't have to be. STEM, and academia in general, is a crucial field and the exclusion of an entire gender from it is irrational and solvable. Moving forward, significant effort should be made to progress in the field and make it a level playing field for all.