Barriers to Entry for Women Pursuing Careers in STEM

Unfortunately, gender inequity in STEM careers continues to persist, particularly in more senior positions. Women continue to be underrepresented in science and engineering roles, particularly when it comes to careers in computer science or applied mathematics. We see this in up-and-coming industries like crypto and blockchain, where female participation tends to average between 5-10% depending on the survey.

And yet, for at least the past three decades, there has been increased media attention on balancing gender participation in STEM. There has been more programming in schools alongside dedicated mentorship programs and other initiatives to get both women and men busy tackling STEM problems.

What is keeping women from participating to the same extent as men? With greater diversity than ever in household situations and participation in domestic roles, as well as evolving trends in whether people choose to have children, you would expect to see some measure of equalization—not persistence of gender inequity.

Barriers to Entry for Women Pursuing Careers in STEM

Why is the gap persisting?

Gender Inequity Starts In School

Research studies and testing have demonstrated that there is no statistically significant difference between the sexes in terms of performance in math and science. National standardized testing reveals no differences during elementary school or middle school.

And yet, by the time it comes to completing higher education, there is a steady and persistent gap between the number of STEM degrees awarded to males and females. Although this might be when the inequity starts to show, it does not necessarily mean that the inequity started here.

When does it start?

Some of the first documentation of the disparity becomes evident in high school.

High school is typically the first instance of course selection for students, where they get to opt in to studying the subjects they are most interested in. This is not only the first instance where students really get to control their course of study, but also one of the first chances they get to express which topics interest them the most.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has tracked student choices in Advanced Placement (AP) work, to try and gauge student interests in the various STEM subjects offered as part of AP programming. The results were somewhat surprising, although they ultimately reinforced the inequity described above.

  • More female students than male chose AP coursework in biology, environmental science, and statistics. This parallels the gender equity observed in these professional disciplines.
  • Far more male students than female students choose pure math and logic classes, including physics and computer science.

What is driving the massive discrepancy between what the different genders choose to study? The effect is seen nationally, so it does not seem to be any one particular event. It seems more likely to be the result of some intrinsic educational attitude.

Female Students Are Treated Differently Than Male Students

Myra and David Sadker pioneered the study of this phenomenon and published their findings in the early 1990s. They showed that boys receive more time to talk in the classroom, and were encouraged to use it—with greater tolerance for mistakes like speaking out of turn. For girls, rules were reinforced more rigorously with clear reminders to never speak out of turn. Obedience was emphasized more consistently in female students than male.

The lower esteem of female contributions in academic and professional settings persists. For starters, there have been blind studies that have observed statistically significant differences between how identical resumes were received by peers—identical save for the name on the top of the resume. Resumes from “Jennifer” received salary offers that were, on average, 12% lower than identical resumes from “John.”

This affects self-talk. Over two hundred physiology students were surveyed regarding their self-perception of intelligence. When students with the same GPA were compared across sexes, male students were over three times more likely than female students to believe they were smarter than the other students. Overall, male students have a 61% chance of thinking they are smarter than their peers, which contrasts with merely 33% of female students thinking the same of themselves. 

Attitudes that begin in youth drive an individual’s development into adulthood. Understanding what can drive women to think differently about their capacity for achievement can shed light on what improvements can be made to reduce academic and professional inequity.

Women in Engineering

Change The Way We Speak of Achievement

There are direct ways to confront the barriers we’ve noted that keep women from careers in STEM. Perhaps the most straightforward one is to change the way we discuss achievement and opportunity.

How exactly to map this to education still needs to be reviewed in detail, but it can be helpful to borrow from other disciplines. What is clear is that there are major potential benefits to making self-talk more positive.

Here, we will list some of the most destructive thoughts—and how to break free of them.

Female students tend to regard math as a fixed trait that’s not theirs.

There have been multiple studies that have examined how a feeling of “belonging” to a subject or discipline can drive subsequent success in that area. The study of calculus by college students is one area in which this study has been performed extensively, and in which gender comparisons have been drawn.

It turns out that female students were more likely than their male counterparts to believe not just that math was a fixed trait, but also that it is one that they lack. This finding directly correlated with poor academic performance in calculus.

You might say “correlation does not mean causation” and while you’re not wrong, the same study dug a bit deeper. It found that women who believed math could be an acquired trait were “protected” from poor performance. They not only stuck with the study of calculus, but they performed well.

Preventing negative self-talk and self-bullying in students is key to empowering them for success in whatever discipline they choose to pursue.

Female students tend to “blame” temporary causes for their wins.

Women are more likely to view success as a good luck accident while internalizing failures as the result of their own personal deficiencies. This is in direct contrast with male tendencies; men think of success as signs of their ability, and tend to blame failures as being the result of bad luck or other circumstances beyond their control.

Further study is warranted to characterize the origins of this discrepancy. But the action that needs to be taken is clear: achievements must be universally celebrated, and criticisms must always be constructive.

If individuals are seen to be taking negative events personally, we must work together to help them reframe their thoughts.

Female students are more prone to impostor syndrome.

This is, in many ways, an extension of the previous point. Impostor syndrome happens when a person believes they have conned their way into success. They usually hold on to these feelings in private, which makes it harder to spot when this situation is occurring.

There are some positive measures that can be taken to get ahead of impostor syndrome among groups vulnerable to it. Open discussion groups among groups of successful women can help. So can high visibility for successful individuals who share traits.

If a negative ritualistic behavior is spotted, it can be helpful to replace it with a positive one. The same is true of documenting positive feedback and making individuals sit with it. Reinforcing positive feedback and rituals can, over time, reinforce positive attitudes.

Further research and analysis are needed to further characterize the problems contributing to gender inequity in STEM as well as map out action to take to resolve them. But we have a starting point in recognizing the barriers to entry listed above, and steps we can take right now to address them.

Andrea Pretorian is a writer and researcher who’s on a quest to empower the public through education, and to facilitate better communication. When she’s not writing, Andrea can be found plotting her next travel adventure.

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