Morgan Noll
February 12, 2020 4:34 pm
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Women are critical thinkers. Unfortunately, they only make up about a quarter of those working in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. This gender disparity within STEM shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, since the conversation has been happening right alongside widespread efforts to close the gender pay gap and advocate for more representation of women in the workplace overall. But as with all of these goals, the push for gender parity in STEM requires a much more nuanced approach than simply a call to even out the numbers. In order to actually see more women in STEM, we have to look at the many biases that discourage women from pursuing these careers in the first place and the barriers that prevent them from continuing to move forward in these fields once they get there.

In honor of International Day of Women and Girls In Science, which was on February 11th, we wanted to highlight the experiences of different women who have carved out a space for themselves in STEM and the barriers they’ve faced along the way. Even though the holiday has been recognized by the United Nations since 2015, only one of the three women interviewed for this piece knew the holiday even existed—so it’s clear that recognition for women in STEM is still far from commonplace.

How the STEM culture favors men

Paulyn Cartwright, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas, has been a first-hand witness to the barriers women face in higher education for nearly 35 years now. At the undergraduate level, she remembers her biology classes having a near-equal split of men and women, but when she went to Yale University in 1991 to obtain her PhD, her eyes were opened to the gender inequity she would continue to face throughout her career. As the classroom numbers shifted in favor of men, so did the environment.

But this was, and still is, more than just a feeling. The disproportionate support for men versus women in STEM is systemic, and it continues on far past graduate school. A 2019 study assessed the discrepancy of research grants given out to early-career applicants and found that men received significantly more start-up support from their institutions than women.

Within the highly competitive and rigorous environment of grad school, this recognition and institutional support can be the difference between whether a student decides to stick it out or call it quits. As a low-income, first-generation, female student, Dr. Cartwright knew from the beginning that her work was cut out for her, but she struggled with the uncertainty of whether or not it would pay off in the end. “If you can’t see or believe that you’re going to make it to the next step, it’s even harder to get motivated to do it,” she says.

Though she’s always been inspired by historically prominent female scientists—like Rosalind Franklin, the woman who helped discover the structure of DNA—at the time, she didn’t have within-reach examples of women who had succeeded in her field.

“I’ve had very few personal role models in my life mainly because there aren’t a lot of senior-level women out there and I haven’t had that exposure,” Dr. Cartwright says. “And I think that’s probably what’s made things most difficult for me.”

How gender stereotypes discourage women from pursuing STEM

In 2015, women received over half of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in the biological sciences, but they received far fewer degrees in other areas in STEM, with 43 percent in mathematics, 39 percent in physical sciences, 20 percent in engineering, and only 18 percent in computer sciences. These numbers are even lower for minority women.

A study from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology noted that this lack of representation and visibility of women in these fields creates a cyclical effect that can discourage women and girls from ever entering:

Melina Giakoumis, a PhD candidate at the City University of New York, saw these gender stereotypes play out in college when she was considering adding a math major along with environmental studies.

As an undergraduate student, that’s all it took for Giakoumis to let the computer science major go. Though she ultimately found marine biology to be her passion, she regrets not having the confidence to stand her ground to the department chair, especially because coding and data analysis is such a big part of her work now.

Mackenzie Clark, a computer software engineer at Squarespace, says she knew what she was signing up for when she decided to pursue computer science. From growing up watching her mom as an electrical engineer, she knew she would be one of the few women in her field. Still, she experienced imposter syndrome “like no other.” When Clark first started her job search, she says she didn’t notice the barriers because of the many hiring initiatives aimed to close the large gender gap in engineering—but that was a two-sided coin.

This only fed the doubts she was already experiencing. “[I thought,] ‘Am I here because I’m good enough to be here or am I just here to be a diversity stat?'” Clark recalls. But now, with years of experience and a senior position to her name, Clark knows those initial doubts were false and that she’s earned her place in her field—and now, she hopes that other women will do the same.

“Whether I’m in positions of speaking or mentoring, I try to be the example I wish I had more of…it’s very encouraging to see these amazing female engineers starting out. And if I can do anything to help them get to where they want to go, then that’s great,” she says.

Clark’s experience also shows how much of a difference it can make to have even just one woman to look up to. In addition to having her mom as an example early on, she cites that there was one female engineer at her first internship, who later encouraged her to study CS at Brown University, for altering the course of her life.

When women support women in STEM, it can be a lifeline

For instance, Giakoumis believes that not having a model to look toward is one of the biggest barriers facing women in STEM. Fortunately, she’s had the Women in Natural Sciences group at the American Museum of Natural History as a constant source of support. As she’s halfway through her PhD and heading toward a career in marine conservation, this group continues to remind her she’s not alone and helps push her to keep going.

“Having a wider networks of women scientists showing you it can be done, that you can have a full-time job that is steady, and have a life that’s comfortable is a really important part of deciding to pursue STEM,” she says. 

And these networks don’t just make a difference for women. Giakoumis says that systemic support for these groups and having an open conversation about the gender barriers at play can help change the dynamics and shift the overall culture at different institutions.

For Dr. Cartwright, some of these important conversations are happening online. Before social media, she says, “The old-boy network that existed in science was all behind closed doors.” But now, it’s out in the open, documented, and accessible to anyone.

And that’s something she’s done many times. One time in particular, she saw a debate playing out on Twitter over two student papers, one of which was by a female grad student for a project she had supervised.

“A bunch of men were talking about the different papers and then someone says, ‘Well, we’re all going to the conference in France, so we need to meet over a beer and hash this out,” Dr. Cartwright says. “So I’m like, ‘Hello, given that I’m an author on the paper and I too will be at the meeting, I would like to have a beer and talk about it,’ but I don’t think it ever occurred to them to include me on that conversation.”

To add more to the conversation and keep that old-boy network in check, Cartwright works to amplify the voices of those that have historically been pushed out. “I make an effort to follow women and people of color in the sciences, I retweet them a lot, and I try to make sure that their voices are heard as well,” she says.

As we highlight women in STEM in celebration of International Day of Women and Girls in Science, the conversation of gender inequity can’t end there. STEM has a long way to go in order to make more space for non-binary and trans identities. As reported by Massive Science, the National Science Foundation surveys on workplace diversity rarely accounts for queer or trans people. So whether the conversations about gender barriers in STEM are taking place online or IRL, they should be inclusive and intersectional at all costs.

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