Bridging The STEM Gender Gap

Megan Foo, a Year 12 student in Hong Kong, shares her thoughts on the challenges posed by gender gaps in STEM industriesMegan Foo, student, and the President of the Hong Kong Chapter of Women LEAD, talks to The NextWomen about the disconcerting underrepresentation of women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields, considering why women are being deterred from studying STEM subjects, and how this issue can be overcome. 

As someone with a penchant for math and science, who has an untrammeled desire to decipher the myriad phenomena of the material universe, I am fascinated by the intertwining of science and technology in society. I am mesmerized by the fact that in our insatiable quest for innovation, concrete theories and principles of science are transmuted into well-researched solutions that cater to society’s needs. I’d like to think that science has always played a pivotal role in my life; from spending late-night hours poring over well-thumbed copies of New Scientist and The Chemistry Review, to writing a Physics study guide for high school students in my sophomore year, I can think of no better way to enrich my knowledge of the world than through the empirical lenses and elegant theories of science.

And as science and technology advance at dizzying paces in our ever-changing world, we stare directly at unheralded, unrivalled innovations in medicine, energy, and philanthropy; witness the meteoric ascent of the Internet, social media and the blogosphere; read about pioneering scientific research on unraveling the brain’s secrets and exploring the nooks and crannies of deep space. Yet, in spite of this exponential growth in technological progress, and despite coming so far as a society, we have yet to tackle a problem of utmost gravity: the underrepresentation of women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields.

Wherever we look, be it in schooling or careers, STEM fields remain a boys’ bastion. A grim tide of statistics underscores this disproportion. 

  • Only one in seven engineers is female (Beede).
  • At Stanford University, Computer Science is the most popular undergraduate major, with 220 students declaring as computer science majors in the 2011-2012 academic year. The introductory course is 40% female, but this value plummets to 12% by graduation (Israni).
  • Only 13% of all STEM jobs in the UK are occupied by women (Botcherby).
  • Only one-fifth of Physics Ph.D.s in the US are awarded to women, and only 14% of all the Physics professors in the United States are women (Pollack).

Why does this dearth of women in STEM fields exist? Most obviously, this deficiency emanates from the pre-established generalizations that have been accepted and perpetuated in society. The archetypal scientist is delineated as a detail-obsessed, emotionally-inept man, complete with a lab coat, effervescent test tube and rubber gloves; the quintessential technologist is presented as a hyper-intellectual, misanthropic guy who dons oversized glasses and types code on a computer in a basement.

Girls grow up believing that men are the driving force behind this world’s scientific and technological machinery.

And, finding no tangible connection between themselves and the prototypical scientist, are deflected from a career in science. These stereotypes, coupled with depictions of women in media and literature as successful doctors, businesswomen, lawyers and teachers, often propel girls on a ballistic trajectory away from STEM fields.

Additionally, there exists an unconscious bias and false presumption that men “naturally” excel at STEM subjects and fields.

Many men and women believe that science, being a rational, axiomatic discipline predicated on reason, is best left at the hands of men, who are viewed as “more logical” and “less emotional” than their female counterparts.

So very often, people aver that “girls can’t do math and science”.

Whether intended as a casual joke or a cautionary warning against pursuing STEM-related interests, this persistent echoing of negative fallacies and entrenched prejudices has morphed into an accepted belief, encouraging girls to turn their backs on STEM for other degrees.

These biases and false presumptions can start as early as grade school. In academic curricula where math and science are not mandatory, girls are rarely encouraged to opt for math and science courses, sparking an underrepresentation of girls in high school advanced math or science classes, and as an inevitable consequence, a scarcity of women adequately equipped to pursue careers in STEM. Sciences are commonly perceived as difficult and esoteric, and as an IB Diploma candidate studying with a focus in Math, Physics and Chemistry, I can attest to this.

However, the rigors of scientific study and mathematical practice should be appreciated and relished; they should be viewed as essential prerequisites for university research and career flexibility.

At my high school, the IB Biology Higher Level (HL) course for juniors is 69% female; the IB Chemistry HL course is 54% female. On the other hand, female juniors in IB Math HL and IB Physics HL account for a mere 41% and 23% of all students, respectively. Viewing this issue on a larger scale, the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), a week-long fair that celebrates the achievements of students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, reports that while 54% of 2011 ISEF finalists in Biochemistry were female, only 29% finalists in Mathematics and 17% finalists in Computer Science were female (“Women in Information Technology: By the Numbers”).

Further exacerbating the problem is the male-dominated nature of STEM industries, which inhibits the hiring of female workers.

Many startups do not hire women in the company’s infancy stage, giving rise to a male-dominated work environment that deters potential female workers from seeking employment.

Eric Vishria, CEO of propriety social media web browser Rockmelt, said in an interview with The Huffington Post that this male-dominated culture becomes a “death spiral”: “You have 15 guys in a room, that's your company, and it becomes harder and harder to hire your first woman.” (Wohlsen)

When women do choose to work for STEM corporations, they face a set of hurdles in addition to being outnumbered by men. Firstly, women face biases surrounding the quality of their research and publications. A survey conducted by the Ohio State University suggests that not only are research papers penned by men associated with greater scientific quality in comparison to publications from female authors, but also that people in STEM fields are more interested in collaborating with male researchers than female researchers (Knobloch-Westerwick). This bias against women also extends to the sphere of grant awards and hiring decisions; while women’s receipt of professional awards and research grants has increased over the past two decades, men in STEM continue to win a greater proportion of awards for scholarly research (Lincoln). These challenges for women in STEM certainly build a case against potential women STEM students and researchers.

The glass ceiling in STEM still hovers above many women around the world, unscathed and unbroken, despite persistent efforts to make it fall.

It is our responsibility to extinguish the many roadblocks that thwart women’s advancement in STEM avenues.

Only when we can move past these major obstacles and understand fully the importance of harnessing the power of women, can we know that we’re moving in the right direction, on pace to achieving innovation and empowerment in STEM.

Megan Foo is a Year 12 student at Chinese International School in Hong Kong. She has written often about issues in gender and education on online platforms like Girls’ Globe and VolunTEEN Nation. As a Contributor for The Next Women, she hopes to raise awareness of women’s entrepreneurial initiatives and economic empowerment. Having been involved with many philanthropic causes including raising funds for family violence intervention training for girls in Guatemala, Megan is the Chief Content Officer of Givology, an online giving marketplace that leverages dollar donations to grassroots education projects in the developing world through a “crowdfunding” philanthropy business model.

Megan is also the President of the Hong Kong Chapter of Women LEAD, a peer-led, creativity-focused nonprofit that provides women’s leadership development training and advocacy in Nepal. When not volunteering, Megan enjoys running cross country, travelling, and reading about issues in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Her favorite subjects are chemistry, physics, and mathematics.

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