A critical look at the role of women in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields
“Your time is better spent learning things girls ought to learn than doing science and going to the laboratory.” My dad said to me.
“Boys always outperform girls in science and mathematics after a certain point in high school. So you don’t need to worry about your son. Instead, those who have daughters are to worry.” My science teachers console parents like this. And yes, they didn’t even admit that exceptions exist.
Why was this concept, that women had no place in science, a prevalent motif in my life?
This stereotype, that women lack of an intrinsic aptitude for math and science and are genetically more suited for childcare positions, is so deeply ingrained in the societal norms, that even some women fall victim and mistakenly believe they were just not cut out for a STEM-related career.
To convince yourself as well as others that these ideas are ridiculous, let’s first trace back to the causation of these stereotypes. In other words, where does the stereotype that females aren’t suited for STEM careers stem from?
By definition, stereotypes are characteristics attributed to people based on their membership in a social group (Ashmore and Del Boca 1981). Two factors together contribute to the formation of the longstanding stereotype of female STEM professionals.
One is the division of gender roles in society. Generally occupying the breadwinner role, men are naturally attributed characteristics of providers and leaders, like agency, competence, and dominance. And because women have historically been more involved in taking family responsibilities and more likely to hold positions at low levels in hierarchies of status and authority, stereotypes about women’s “communality” and lack of capability have developed. Unfortunately, these misconceptions were carried to STEM and have been deterring more women from entering these fields, thus further strengthening the stereotypes. A vicious cycle was formed.
( Source: Pinterest)
Therefore, stereotypes based on qualifiers such as sex and race, but not achievement or education, determine perceptions about the difference between males’ performance in STEM and that of females.
Gender stereotypes often operate implicitly. A well-established line of research based on the finding that essays were judged more favorably when attributed to authors with male rather than female names (Goldberg, 1968). There is also implicit gender stereotyping in judgments of fame, dependence, and aggression. In our everyday life, we are used to addressing a woman scientist as “female scientist” instead of “scientist” because we have subconsciously assumed that scientists have to be men.
As you can see, stereotypes of women are actually baseless and have nothing to do with their real intelligence and capability at all!
But there are certainly women scientists who defied any gender stereotypes and did groundbreaking work. Chien Shiung Wu’s experiments overturned a then widely accepted law called Principle of Conservation of Parity; Rosalind Franklin took X-ray images of DNA, which led to the discovery of the structure of DNA , a thing that would revolutionize biology
But, some may argue, that the role of motherhood conflicts with their ability to produce in STEM fields. Yet, again, it is the contradiction with social expectations (which are not always golden standards) that makes mothers face particularly negative perceptions in STEM. Society expects that an ideal worker works at least 40 h a week, joins the workforce in his 20s to continue until his 60s, and dedicates time and energy mainly to work while sacrificing other responsibilities including childcare (Williams 2001). Meanwhile, society expects mothers to give priority to domestic responsibilities (childcare, housework, etc) and doesn’t believe that they can stay motivated after they have families.
The cost of motherhood is great, but it will be unwise to penalize female researchers or engineers just because of that. By giving mother scientists more care, for example, having husbands taken up some parts of childcare and offering mothers more generous day-offs, motherhood disadvantage can be substantially subsided. There are many examples of female scientists succeeded in being both mothers and researchers, like Marie Curie , Youyou Tu, and May-Britt Moser.
There is evidence that having more women in STEM fields will bring huge benefits, such as diversity, and fresh perspectives to fundamental scientific questions. But more than this, it is important to have more women in STEM fields just to have the top minds solving problems, regardless of who that mind belongs to.
To give you one more piece of encouraging information:
People generally assume that girls are genetically poorer at Mathematics than boys.
Using meta-analysis to analyze gender differences in recent studies of mathematics performance, researchers at University of Wisconsin – Madison and University of California – Berkeley found that girls and boys did DIFFER in learning ability. To help you visualize this discrepancy, I will use an analogy. With two people standing together, one is 1.80 meters tall, while the other is 1.81 meters tall. (Here should be laughter.) So women and men perform similarly in mathematics.
So don’t be fooled or constrained by stereotypes! Find a mentor or role model who supports the woman you want to become. And, most importantly, be proud of being a girl interested in STEM!
(Source: Writing about Stereotypes)
- Gender Bias or Motherhood Disadvantage? Judgments of Blue Collar Mothers and Fathers in the Workplace
- Ashmore, R. D., & Del Boca, F. K. (1981). Conceptual approaches to stereotypes and stereotyping.
- 10 Groundbreaking Women Scientists Written Off By History
- New Trends in Gender and Mathematics Performance: A Meta-Analysis
- Gender Stereotypes Stem From the Distribution of Women and Men Into Social Roles
- Goldberg, P. (1968). Are women prejudiced against women?
- Williams, J. (2001). Unbending gender: Why work and family conflict and what to do about it.
Written by: Jianzhi Liu, Mentee in 1000 Girls, 1000 Futures
Edited by Stephanie Rogers, Mentor in 1000 Girls, 1000 Futures