Soapbox Science

Why the Status of Women in STEM Fields Needs to Change

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Ben Thomas writes articles about a variety of topics for the Riley Guide, an online repository for career and education resources. As a freelancer, Ben also covers scientific research and technological breakthroughs as well as social issues involving the sciences. A regular contributor to several leading science news websites, Ben helps scientists and academics connect with the general public by explaining their latest discoveries and controversies in clear, down-to-earth terms.

It’s no secret that women are heavily under-represented in STEM fields – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Though the Association for Women in Science reports that 1.3 million women are employed in STEM careers, a 2009 survey by the U.S. Department of Commerce found that those women represent just 24 percent of STEM jobs – and that they earn, on average, 12 percent less than their male counterparts. A 2012 survey of publications on J­STOR, a digital archiving service, discovered that women are also unlikely to be listed as last authors of scholarly articles – especially in the biological sciences, where the rate of female last-authorship is only 16.5 percent.

What keeps such striking gender disparities alive, even in progressive first-world nations? And what’s being done to address the issue? Here, two science advocates weigh in with their ideas.

A variety of causes

“As a culture, we don’t particularly encourage girls to play with mechanical objects which can develop both comfort and interest.”

The effects of women’s under-representation in STEM fields are fairly straightforward to measure – but the reasons for this gender disparity aren’t quite so easy to pin down. One aspect of the problem seems to be anachronistic social pressure: Despite the well-known fact that female scientists have been the brains behind lynch pin discoveries in physics, engineering and medicine, young girls don’t always receive much encouragement to tinker in the sciences. “Early exposure can play an important role in generating interest in [STEM] fields,” says Erin Cadwalader, public policy fellow for the Association for Women in Science. “As a culture, we don’t particularly encourage girls to play with mechanical objects which can develop both comfort and interest.” Even women who progress into scientific jobs, Cadwalader adds, often find themselves turned off by “chilly climates of sexism, harassment, or lack of promotion or recognition.” This constant pressure to prove one’s worth can turn a childhood fascination into a draining daily grind.

A need for change

 “…it isn’t just at the bench and in the field that we need more women, but rather all the way along the path in many different types of roles.”

Though a wide range of factors can exert influence on a woman’s career choices, experts from small universities all the way to the White House agree that more women are needed in STEM fields. Not only is an increase in female scientists and engineers likely to strengthen America’s scientific significance in the twenty-first century, but such an increase is also a crucial step in the name of social progress. “Few women make it to the top of the food chain, in terms of academic leadership or on industry board of directors, scientific advisory boards, and so on,” Cadwalader says. “So it isn’t just at the bench and in the field that we need more women, but rather all the way along the path in many different types of roles.” A robust mentorship program could serve as a backbone for two kinds of progress: On the one hand, female mentors can serve as advocates for other women in issues where sexism or gender stereotyping may be in play; at the same time, such mentors can offer moral support and guidance up predominantly male career ladders. “A mentor need not be in the mentee’s immediate field,” says Ruth Charney, a professor of mathematics at Brandeis University. “It should just be someone – preferably a woman – who has successfully built the type of career that the mentee seeks.”

Finding motivation

“Once the number of women begins to grow, they can provide role models and mentors and a more welcoming environment, and it’ll  become easier to attract even more women.”

The good news is that women interested in STEM areas are finding more and more compelling reasons to pursue careers in these fields. A 2011 survey by the U.S. Department of Commerce found that women in STEM jobs earned 33 percent more than comparable women in non-STEM jobs – an increase which the Department called “considerably higher” than the STEM premium for men. And despite the fact that women currently hold a minority of STEM jobs, a gathering storm of socioeconomic factors indicate that statistics like these may shift in the very near future. Throughout 2012, the White House rolled out a whole series of new initiatives aimed at bolstering female interest and enrollment in STEM majors – from classroom visits by “all-star” female scientists to software-coding challenges targeted at school-age girls – and similar events and promotions are on the way in 2013. A growing number of legislators are also throwing their weight behind the recruiting effort, introducing bills like the Women and Minorities in STEM Booster Act, aimed at developing grant programs, workshops and mentorships for young women who’d like to explore STEM careers.

Female-oriented STEM initiatives no longer fall into the “hopes and dreams” category – they’ve already brought female coders and science fair winners to national attention. This new generation of women will continue to require guidance as they rise through the ranks – but as those ranks swell, the climb may become easier for others. “Once the number of women begins to grow, they can provide role models and mentors and a more welcoming environment, and it’ll  become easier to attract even more women,” Charney says. Women already established in STEM fields, meanwhile, need the support of male and female colleagues – especially superiors – to help ensure that they’re getting a fair shake in terms of board representation, citations and so on. For all these reasons, contributions at a variety of educational and hierarchical levels is necessary if STEM fields are to reap the long-term benefits of change.

 

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