Why The STEM Gender Gap Isn't Improving
We’ve already declared 2018 the Year of the Woman. Last year was a big year for empowering and encouraging women to speak out and stand up. But there’s still one area that needs drastic improvement in empowering women - women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). While it seems like gender bias is improving in many areas of society, the number of women in the field of computer science has actually decreased since 1991, and between 2004 and 2014, the number of women entering engineering and computer science fell. Further, while women account for about 60% of college graduates, women earn only about 35% of STEM degrees. So in the era where women feel more empowered than ever, how is the number of women in STEM remaining stagnant or even decreasing?
Gender biases are still ingrained in girls at a young age. While girls tend to do better in mathematics on standardized testing such as TIMMS in 4th grade, this difference tends to disappear by 8th grade. This could be due to harmful stereotypes, such as that boys are inherently better at math than girls. Stereotype bias has a massive psychological impact on girls, and can unconsciously impact how girls do on testing. For example, when taking a math test in a room predominantly occupied by men, girls perform worse on tests due to the stereotype that girls aren’t as good at math. Even worse, this bias still exists whether one consciously refutes math and science stereotypes or not, because this implicit bias is held at an unconscious level. So while at a surface level, gender biases are improving, unconscious biases still prevent progress and improvement.
Here’s an infuriating study: a 2012 randomized, double-blind study gave science faculty at research-intensive universities application materials of fake students randomly assigned as either male or female. The study found that both male and female faculty rated the male applicants as significantly more qualified and competent despite an identical application. Further, a 2014 study found that both men and women were twice as likely to hire a male applicant to fill a mathematics position. Ugh.
So why does this matter? The obvious answer is that gender bias provides an unequal playing field for men and women - it encourages stereotypical gender roles and the wage gap. It’s just unfair. But even more, it means that talent is not being utilized and economies are ultimately less productive. The fact that women who are just as qualified and competent in these sectors means that these fields are suffering from this lack of talent. In fact, recent work suggests “correcting gender segregation in employment and in entrepreneurship could increase aggregate productivity globally by as much as 16 percent.” So if gender inequality isn’t enough to get you pissed, maybe an unproductive economy will?
Clearly, this issue runs deep. So what can be done? It all starts out at a pretty young age - providing girls with role models, introducing inclusive language in the classroom, and bringing in non-stereotypical role models. Change will primarily come from encouraging girls and acknowledging their STEM accomplishments. It is also important to be conscious of your own verbiage when speaking to girls and women - whether you’re a parent, teacher, sibling, friend, etc.
Here's a list of top organizations, websites, and charities that promote women in STEM.