We Need a Solution to Our Women in STEM Problem

Emma Watson as Hermione Granger bewing a potion in Harry potter and the Half-Blood Prince

THIS PAST WEEK, the U.S. News STEM Solutions conference gathered 1500 professionals in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in order to develop new approaches to engaging young students in their respective fields. The fourth of its kind, this year’s conference, held in San Diego, focused on ways to increase diversity in the STEM workforce. Michael Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund and one the conference’s keynote speakers, commented on the fact that careers in STEM still seem to be out of reach for many minority and female students. “We’re telling young people that STEM matters,” he said, “but not showing them that they can be a part of it.” And the reason we’re not showing them they can be part of STEM —  at least when it comes to girls, that is — is that we’re too busy showing them something else. From the minute they’re able to grasp things with their own two hands, girls are given the pretty dolls to take care of and boys are given the toy trucks to smash things with. Girls are told how pretty and sweet they are, and boys are told how strong and smart they are.

If you think that’s an exaggeration, here’s the proof. This is what my male elementary school teacher told me when I got frustrated with a math problem: “Don’t worry sweetie, sometimes girls just get a little emotional and they have trouble thinking straight. Just take a deep breath before you start the next problem.” My female high school chemistry teacher, when I went to dispose of some beakers full of chemicals: “Actually, let the boys handle those, I don’t want you to hurt yourself.” My male classmate in my high school AP Bio class: “Why are you even trying that hard? It’s not like you’re gonna go to school for biology.” And my college friend when I told her I couldn’t go out and party with her because I had exams the next day: “Girl, you’re pretty. You don’t even need to study that hard.” Intentional or not, all kinds of people engage in discouraging women from STEM fields, regardless of age, gender, or level of education. It’s as if the behavior is encoded in our DNA. (FYI, ladies, that’s the Silly-String-looking stuff that tells our cells what to be when they grow up. You’re welcome.)

Here are the facts. Today:

  • Only 39% of chemists and material scientists are women
  • Only 27.9% of environmental scientists and geoscientists are women
  • Only 15.6% of chemical engineers are women
  • Only 12.1% of civil engineers are women
  • Only 8.3% of electrical engineers are women
  • Only 17.2% of industrial engineers are women
  • And only 7.2% of mechanical engineers are women

Women have seen no employment growth in STEM jobs in fifteen years — not since 2000. These statistics have nothing to do with a lack of intelligence level or a lack of capability in the STEM fields; in fact, some of the most brilliant and innovative minds in science have belonged to women. No, it’s outdated sexist beliefs that keep women out of the lab.

Women are more emotional. Women only want to get married and have babies. Women are not tough. Women prefer less-demanding subjects. These kinds of tired — and systemic — beliefs are the ones that people use to discourage women from pursuing the STEM fields. They’re not just beliefs held by high school bullies or uneducated peers, mind you; they are held by highly-accomplished and educated individuals. Nobel Prize winner Sir Tim Hunt once said: “The trouble with girls in the lab is that you fall in love with them and they fall in love with you and, when you criticize them, they cry.” If powerful and educated people believe things like this, how do we stop the general population from believing them? How do we stop women themselves from believing them? There is a reported overall decreased interest in the STEM fields by students countrywide, regardless of gender. But of those students who are interested in the STEM fields, men outnumber the women three to one. Regardless of how strong and brilliant you are, if you hear the same comments everyday that you are not good enough or not smart enough, pretty soon you will start to believe it. There are enough statistics to prove it.

The only way to combat this growing problem is to educate people on this matter. Gender inequality and defined gender roles are the root causes of the lack of women in the STEM fields. We need to highlight and celebrate the female engineers, scientists, and mathematicians who are already excelling in the field, so that young girls can see them and imagine themselves in their shoes. “People need to see people who look like them,” said Wanda Austin, president and CEO of the Aerospace Corp, when she spoke at the conference about the lack of role models for women and minorities. If we fix one, we can fix the other.

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