The challenges of women in STEM

Carlotta Berry, a professor at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, has been selected as one of Into Diversity’s 2016 Inspiring Women in STEM for her efforts to encourage the next generation of young people to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics education and careers.

As well as other work, Berry co-founded the RoseBUD program which encourages students from underrepresented groups toward STEM careers and has helped increase diversity in the institute’s student body, especially among electrical engineering subjects.

Her work, along with many other inspirational female scientists, highlights a major issue of the lack of women in STEM subjects, with many barriers and obstacles existing for women pursuing STEM careers. Research conducted at Yale University has shown that physicists, chemists and biologists are likely to view a young male scientist in higher stead than a woman with the same qualifications during the recruitment process. When presented with two imaginary applicants whose accomplishments were identical, professors at six major research institutions were significantly more willing to hire the male, with the woman’s salary on average nearly $4,000 lower if she was hired.

Many cultural forces also continue to stand in the way of women entering STEM careers, ranging from girls being steered towards other professions from an early age, gender bias and sexual harassment in the workplace.

Primatologist Jane Goodall was once referred to as “The blonde girl studying apes” by a National Geographic editor. That ‘girl’ went on to become world famous for her field studies of chimpanzees.

Paving ways to empowering women in science is of huge importance as the lack of an equal representation from both genders has large and very real implications for research. Collaboration is now the foundation of much of STEM research; including gender in research can make careers and avenues of research more relevant to women, attracting more women to science. General knowledge in a field tends to expand as more women get involved in science and there are lots of places where you can show the direct link between increases in numbers of women and an outcome in knowledge, such as biology, medicine and history. An example of positive collaboration was The Human Genome Project, whose goal was the complete mapping and understanding of all genes of humans and drawing researchers from fields including biology, chemistry, genetics, physics, mathematics and computer science.

The stereotypical image of individual research geniuses shouting ‘eureka!’ is giving way to more collaborative research done by teams. Involving more qualified women as well as additional social identities such as gay people and those with physical disabilities can enrich the creativity and insight of a research team and increase the chances for true innovation.

mae jemison.jpg
Mae Jemison was the first African-American woman in space and worked as the science specialist on a 1992 Spacelab mission.

‘Science problems’ affect everyone – children, women and men. However, whoever is dealing with the scientific enquiry usually has an impact on what science solves and who things are designed for. Analysts say that more women are needed in research to increase the range of inventions that tackle problems by thinking about issues in different ways than men do. Will there be more drive to invent a drug for male-pattern baldness or for a seat belt for pregnant women in car crashes?

Women are also raised to be more socially aware than men, and broader emotional intelligence can yield immensely positive results in scientific research. Stanford psychologists have shown that women tend to exhibit more ‘communal’ qualities, such as fostering relations and creating an inclusive environment. But we don’t just want to have more talented women – we want to make sure our talented women don’t end up stuck in lower level positions. We want them in leadership positions, directing the field.

Maybe one day we can have a world where talented boys and girls can pursue lives and careers as historically perceived as not appropriate to their gender. But until then, encouragement and information is what we can provide – there is only so far they can go on their own.

If you’ve experienced gender bias regarding pursuing a STEM career or education or have any thoughts on the subject, share your story below.


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