Women in STEM Fields – Part II: Why So Few?

By Guest Contributor Aparna Ramen

Last time, we looked over some educational statistics on women in STEM fields. We saw that women were greatly underrepresented in these fields nationally, with less than half as many female students as male students entering STEM fields, and the odds of attrition for women students in those fields being greater than for men. We also saw there were far fewer women than men studying or earning degrees in science and engineering. This severe underrepresentation of women was apparent even at the U of M, where nearly 80% of the students in the College of Science and Engineering were men, and only 10% of faculty were women.1

So the question begs, “Why so few?”  Over the past 50 years, women have made tremendous progress in education and the workplace, even in historically male fields such as business, law, and medicine. Why then are so few women becoming scientists and engineers? The answer, it seems, lies instead in social and environmental factors.

I came across an article the other day in my parents’ technology magazine, IEEE Spectrum, on Marissa Mayer, who is well known as one of the core forces behind Google. The ranks of bona fide international celebrities in technology, the article claimed, is rather small, but the list of female international tech celebrities is even smaller, consisting solely of Ms. Marissa Mayer.2 Mayer was the first female engineer and among the first 20 people hired at Google. She was a major force behind its user interface and ran its core search business for years. She is now in charge of one of Google’s premiere new technologies, location and location services, and oversees development in apps such as Google Maps and Google Earth. Her impact on the giant search engine company has been significant, and she has influenced not only the technology, but also its design and appeal. One colleague said, “Marissa helped shape Google, and Google encapsulates Marissa’s personality.”2

After graduating from Stanford with a master’s degree in computer science in 1999, Mayer was hired on as the ninth engineer and the first female engineer at Google. Although she claimed she had no qualms about being Google’s first female engineer, she said she had looked at other start-up companies that had 50 or more male engineers and who really wanted her as their first female engineer, but she turned them down because she felt they didn’t have a good culture for women engineers. “To me, getting to eight engineers that are all guys could be a coincidence,” she said. “Getting to 50, you have a cultural problem.”2 If someone as driven and successful as Marissa Mayer was turned off by the lack of women and the cultural climate for women engineers, how many other women might have been driven away from such a field by the same environment, thus feeding the same problem?

If we had more highly successful female role models in science, engineering, and technology to look up to like that, who have shaped our world, would more women pursue those fields? If the culture and environment in which they are asked to work and study were more receptive to and supportive of women, would it make a difference? Research shows that it very likely would.

The findings of a comprehensive study by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), a nationwide network that advances equity for women and girls, indicate that there are several social and environmental factors contributing to the gender disparity in STEM fields.3

First of all, girls’ early achievements and interests in math and science are shaped by societal beliefs and their learning environment. For example, one finding shows that girls who are led to believe that intelligence can expand with experience and learning tend to do better on math tests and say they want to continue to study math in the future.3 Spatial skills, which are one of the largest gender differences in cognitive ability and are considered to be important in science and engineering fields, were also shown to improve dramatically in a short time in girls with simple training and positive encouragement.3

Additionally, negative stereotypes about girls’ abilities in math persist and measurably lower test performance, as well as their aspirations for science and engineering careers over time. Girls’ self-assessment, or confidence in their math abilities were also lower than that for boys, and they believed they had to fulfill a higher standard in order to succeed in “male” fields, resulting in fewer girls than boys aspiring to STEM careers.3

While the foundation for math and science is laid out early in life, scientists and engineers are made in college. Research has shown that small improvements made by physics and computer science departments, such as providing a broader overview of the field in introductory courses, can result in large gains in female student recruitment and retention.3 Research also indicates that women are less satisfied with the academic workplace and are more likely to leave it than men. Colleges and universities that improve departmental culture to promote the integration of female faculty, such as implementing mentoring programs and effective work-life policies, attract and retain more women science and engineering faculty.3

Bias, often unconscious, is shown to limit women’s progress in STEM fields. For example, research shows that most people associate science and math fields with “male”, and humanities and arts fields with “female”.3 (Take the “Gender-Science IAT” bias test to identify your own biases).

Furthermore, people often even hold negative opinions of women in what they consider “masculine” fields, like science and engineering. They judge women to be less competent in “male” jobs and even when a woman is clearly competent in such a job, she is considered to be less likeable.3 This limits women’s progress in STEM fields because both likeability and competence are needed for success in the workplace. Social disapproval can of course also be very discouraging to women in these fields.

In education, in many departments, women still feel that the university climate is not supportive of their success, and they get less attention, feedback, and encouragement from teachers than male students get, and at times face outright incivility in their classes. A study found that women applying for a research grant needed to be 2.5 times more productive than men in order to be considered equally competent.4

Competence scores awarded after peer review

Source: Barres, Ben A. “Does gender matter?” Nature. Nature Publishing Group., 13 July. 2006.

Peer reviewers in Sweden award lower competence scores to female scientists than to similarly productive male scientists.

Another study suggests that the lower degree completion rate for women earning doctoral degrees in science and engineering (54% vs  62% for men) may also be a result of fewer opportunities for research and teaching assistantships for women – which in turn could be influenced by bias (unconscious or not) against women in those fields versus men.5

Source: Ampaw, Frim D. (2011) Understanding the factors affecting degree completion of doctoral women in the science and engineering fields. New Directions for Institutional Research 2011(152).

So we see that negative cultural stereotypes, bias, social disapproval and lack of support, encouragement, and opportunities in their educational and workplace environments are largely responsible for the low ratio of women in STEM fields.

I can say from personal experience as well that there are definitely some negative stereotypes about women in STEM circulating out there in our college environment. For example, I once heard a joke on campus that ridiculed women in mathematics. It said there were “three genders: male, female, and female math PhDs.” While some people found that amusing, I thought it was a pretty insulting and offensive remark (and said so), to be classifying a woman in that field as abnormal, or “other” in a derogatory way merely because she choose to study in a field where men still greatly outnumber women.

While I have found my educational experiences at the U to be mostly very supportive, some of the women among my family and friends have had to study and work in more discouraging and unsupportive environments. In her undergraduate studies at an engineering college, my mom studied in classes where less than 10% of the students were female. All of her instructors were also male, and she found it difficult to approach them or ask questions in class. They gave her and her female classmates less attention, feedback and encouragement. Some of her female classmates and friends were teased and harassed as well. Overall, she really disliked the learning environment, and it also affected how well she did and how much she enjoyed learning engineering there. It was only after she moved to the US and did her graduate studies in electrical engineering at the U of M, where the learning environment and culture was markedly improved, that she really enjoyed learning her subject area and did extremely well.

The next post, Part III, will be about the reasons we need women in STEM fields and what we can do about it.

1. Maeker, Akiko. “Status of Women at the University of Minnesota: Overview and Recommendations” Women’s Center, University of Minnesota. 2011.

2. Perry, T.S. “Google’s Chic Geek” IEEE Spectrum. 4 April 2012. Vol. 49 (no. 4). Pp. 33-36.

3. Hill, C., Corbett, C., & Rose, A. S. (2010). “Why so few? Women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics: AAUW.

4. Barres, Ben A. “Does gender matter?” Nature. Nature Publishing Group., 13 July. 2006.

5. Ampaw, F.D. (2011) Understanding the factors affecting degree completion of doctoral women in the science and engineering fields. New Directions for Institutional Research 2011(152).

Aparna Ramen is a volunteer research assistant at the Women’s Center and an undergraduate neuroscience major at the University of Minnesota. Her goals include a career in scientific research and medicine. With a passion for science, philosophy, social justice, and feminism, and experience dealing with and overcoming disability, she also hopes to encourage other young women to overcome their setbacks and pursue their dreams.


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