Women belong in STEM.
As we’ve explored in the past, women have been at the forefront of many crucial advancements and breakthroughs in the world of STEM.
However, according to the World Economic Forum, women comprise only 30% of the world’s researchers, despite making up 53% of the world’s bachelor’s and master’s graduates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
Women are under-represented in STEM fields – but why is this still the case?
Biases and gender stereotypes are crucial factors that are steering women away from STEM careers. These biases and gender stereotypes – which often go unchallenged and even unnoticed – mold and reinforce parental expectations, societal norms, and institutional norms that influence women’s career decisions and progression.
How can we observe these biases at work? In a 2012 double-blind study conducted at Princeton University, science faculty at research-intensive universities were presented with applicants for a laboratory leadership position. The applications were identical, and were randomly assigned a female or male name. The faculty participants – both male and female – rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the identical female applicant. They also opted to provide a higher starting salary and more career mentoring to the male applicant.
These findings are reflective of a problematic and pervasive bias – that women in STEM are less competent than men. It is also reflected in the fact that women in STEM receive unequal pay and publish less than their male counterparts.
Gender parity has always been an issue in STEM – but this gap is growing wider as the COVID-19 pandemic progresses. The increased domestic and care responsibilities of women during this pandemic, reinforced by societal inequities and expectations, have led to changes in publishing rates – for example, the proportion of publications with women as first-authors in 2020 has decreased by 19% since 2019. It is also crucial to note these challenges are compounded for women of color and women who belong to other marginalized groups.
Diversity in STEM is crucial to the advancement of its fields, and in our global progress towards the sustainable development goals. In the words of Bell Burnell from the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development, “Missing women in the work force is a loss of talent. Diversity makes workplaces more robust, flexible and successful than those that are more monochromatic.”
While the struggles of women scientists during this pandemic can be discouraging, they have illuminated the systemic gender-specific barriers that we must address – and it all starts in the home and in the classroom. Last year, we explored how we can improve representation to empower the next generation of women in STEM. In the words of Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, “The world needs science, and science needs women.” As we celebrate International Women’s Day this year, let’s work on doing just that – empowering and supporting girls and women to be strong Fearless Learners.