The Steadfast Sex Struggle of STEM

Exploring the reason why our world’s capable, tenacious women seem to stray away from pursuing STEM-oriented careers, as well as what must be done in order to dissolve this disparity.

Reading Time: 7 minutes

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By Michael Hu

You find yourself in a laboratory poring over a résumé intently, your senses overwhelmed by the pristine white equipment and striking, potent scent of disinfectant. Numerous esteemed biologists, including yourself, at six prestigious research facilities are asked to participate in a study conducted by researchers at Yale, in which you are each presented with an identical job application of an imaginary student seeking a lab manager position—half of these applicants possess a female name and the other half possess a male name—and tasked with assessing how willing you would be to hire the potential applicant. Much to your surprise, despite boasting the same exact credentials, your fellow professors are significantly more willing to offer the man a job. Even those who choose to hire the woman set her salary, on average, $4,000 lower than the man’s. More appallingly, the female scientists, in their choices, are just as gender-biased as their male counterparts. Your role in the scenario may be imaginary, but the study and its unfortunate findings are not.

With social movements constantly erupting in cries for justice and gender equality, it is easy to assume that we as a society have progressed and grown past this dated and sexist thinking. Yet countless young women in my generation and before have had to grow up listening to cries from men like previous president of Harvard Lawrence Summers, who declared that “fewer females than males have the ‘innate ability’ to succeed in academic disciplines that require advanced mathematical abilities” in 2005. Women are constantly belittled and conditioned by society to believe that they don’t have what it takes to thrive in challenging STEM careers and that their biological gender holds them back from the day they are born.

My own relatives and teachers led me to believe that I didn’t bear the capabilities required to succeed in science and math that my male counterparts seemed to. The first time I did poorer than I had hoped on a science test, my second grade teacher’s chosen words of consolation were that “it’s okay to be bad at science” because “all girls are usually only good at English anyway.” And it has grown apparent that I am not the only girl who has grown up possessing these invalid beliefs and letting them dictate what I choose to pursue.

The Economics and Statistics Administration revealed that in 2015, women filled 47 percent of all jobs in the U.S., but held only 24 percent of STEM jobs. Similarly, women constitute slightly more than half of all college-educated workers, yet still only comprise 25 percent of college-educated STEM workers. As you can see, the feminist movement has certainly helped level the playing field and made our society more progressive, ensuring that women bountifully fill our world’s workplaces and universities. However, recession, not progression, is observed when it comes to encouraging women to pursue STEM careers. For example, the National Center for Women and Information Technology reported that women received 37 percent of computer science degrees in 1985, but only a mere 18 percent in 2010, in what is supposedly a more advanced day and age.

Evidently, there is a disparity that exists and must be alleviated, especially because in 2017, women in STEM jobs earned 35 percent more than comparable women in non-STEM jobs. Likewise, they earned 40 percent more than men with non-STEM jobs. As a result, the wage gap is less prevalent in STEM careers. In order to truly secure gender equality and draw the abiding wage gap to a close, women should be given equal opportunities to participate and prevail in such vocations.

Despite the enduring implications that the lack of women choosing to enter the STEM realm of careers is due to an innate lack of ability, it has been proven on various occasions that men and women actually have strikingly similar cognitive abilities pertaining to these subjects. Psychologists at the University of Wisconsin published a meta-analysis in 1990 that synthesized data collected from over three million participants in 100 different studies of math performance. The researchers found no large overall differences between the results of boys and girls. Furthermore, girls even appeared slightly better at computation in earlier stages of schooling. However, in high school, the disparities seemed to emerge as boys showed a slight edge in problem-solving. This was likely due to their confidence in their skills and choice to emphasize learning what they have been told they possess a natural ability in.

The scarcity of women pursuing STEM is rather a matter of underlying psychological factors and stereotypes, since girls are often conditioned by their parents and teachers to believe they are inferior to boys in these pursuits. Culture also has immense cognitive impacts on our abilities to succeed. Christia Spears Brown, Professor of Psychology at Kentucky University, reasons that though parents and teachers do attribute good grades in math to the hard work of girls, they still tend to associate natural ability with boys. She explains that “girls are internalizing those cultural messages early in development, believing that, yes they may work hard, but they are not naturally really smart.” Furthermore, she expressed how “these beliefs can have important implications for what types of academic paths children choose to take and shows [sic] why girls are opting out of majors like physics, despite earning high grades in school.” If girls are filled with self-doubt and uncertainty about their natural ability to flourish in STEM classes due to unsolicited stereotypes planted in their minds by their mentors, they are less likely to take classes that emphasize those skills. This hinders their growth, while potentially accounting for the slight problem-solving advantage boys held in later years of schooling.

In fact, stereotypes and perceived notions spoon-fed by others are proven to affect performance. In a study conducted by the University of Michigan in 1999, a sample of students with similarly strong backgrounds and abilities in math were divided into two groups. In the first, the students were informed that men performed better on math tests than women did, and in the second, the students were assured that regardless of what they might have heard, there was no difference between male and female performance. Both groups were given the same math test. In the first, the men outscored the women by 20 points; in the second, the men scored only two points higher.

Thus, social, cultural, and subconscious influences play an unfortunately strong role in blurring the line between actual and perceived differences in ability among men and women. We are biologically equal intellectually, yet gender roles still control our lives and set boundaries on what we think are our capabilities. In order to secure gender equality, stereotypes must be retired, and more conscious efforts should be made to reassure girls that they are more than capable of succeeding in whatever fields their passions lie, including STEM. Keeping girls engaged in and intrigued by STEM pursuits throughout their years of schooling is a good first step. If they are constantly exposed to authentic, relevant, and applicable experiences of STEM—such as robotics and computer science—from an early age and provided with opportunities to experiment in a space where it feels safe to make mistakes, they are more likely to continue developing their critical thinking skills. If we allow them to do so, they will undoubtedly enjoy STEM-related classes with a self-assured mindset, rather than think “This is difficult; I might not be good at it.”

Stuyvesant, often branded a STEM-oriented school, already has a focus on encouraging all students, men and women alike, to delve into and pursue these subjects. By making classes like computer science a graduation requirement, our school is already making progress, considering that of all the students who take the annual AP Computer Science exam, typically only 28 percent are female. Instead of requiring students to endure classes like Art Appreciation and Drafting, which many find tedious and unproductive, higher-level STEM courses and multiple engaging science electives that our school already offers should be conditions of the Stuyvesant endorsed diploma. Drafting and related courses should still be options for electives, but they should not fill valuable spots in the schedules of students who could otherwise be taking more stimulating STEM classes.

Furthermore, the teaching style of our instructors, especially those who run math classes, must be altered. If individuals perceive themselves as bad at math, they are more predisposed to the act of disliking and dodging it. Without practice and conscious effort to improve, they are likely to fall behind in this subject. This may legitimize a lack of ability and competence that was once just a perception. And the way the education system of the United States is set up only perpetuates the circumstance. When math is taught in the U.S., and especially in Stuyvesant, comprehension of concepts seems to be of far greater value than repeated practice is, since our school’s teachers often try to expand our curriculum and cover a vast number of extra topics, limiting the time available to regularly perform practice. To avoid letting girls shy away from and ultimately fall behind in STEM subjects, Stuyvesant’s teachers must place a further emphasis on practice, either by allocating more time during their lessons to do so or by giving various homework problems that are targeted toward the same concept for reinforcement.

Moreover, companies like J.P. Morgan, an investment bank, are launching initiatives such as their Winning Women program. This program seeks our next generation of female leaders in finance, offering them internships and ensuring that their workforce is comprised of an adequate amount of women. Likewise, feminist Karlie Kloss operates Kode with Klossy, a free summer camp intent on empowering and teaching girls in high school to code. Beyond us pushing our girls to pursue STEM endeavors at home and in the classroom, an increasing number of employers and influencers should begin to provide such programs. Stuyvesant’s teachers and guidance counselors should also seek out these opportunities and inform their students about them, via e-mail or during class. Extra credit awarded to those who apply and partake in the programs would certainly boost the number of female students who attend. There, they may learn more about various fields of STEM, expand their interest, and hopefully be inspired to become future innovators of engineering, technology, and much more.

To some, gender inequalities pertaining to career choice may simply seem like a vestige of past decades, silenced by the closing of the wage gap, but disparities between the participation of men and women in STEM affairs echo louder than ever. The Stuyvesant community and our society as a whole must make significant progress before we are able to reverse the insinuated biases the women of our world have grown up dealing with.