STEM: Shifting Towards an Enlightened Mankind

Article Written by Moira Katherine Du
Illustration by Denise Maxine Mendoza and Mae Garrido Pon
Posted 21 March 2022

It began with a dream, as it so often does in this world. It began with a little girl holding tools in her tiny hands passionately saying she wanted to be an inventor. This little girl needed nothing more than a good support system and a society that validated her dreams. Instead, she received an enormous amount of snickers, scoffs, and disbelief that she, a girl no less, could ever dream of becoming an inventor. So, she did what most people would. She put her tools away, pushed her dreams aside, and pursued a more “suitable” career. The little girl was Hedy Lamarr, an actress who became a genius inventor who created technology that would become the foundation for WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth. [1] Unfortunately, her experience is not a rare one. In fact, she’s one of the lucky ones. After all, in the end, and despite all the prejudice, she lived out her dreams. How many women cannot say the same? How many women have lost their chance at a ‘happy ever after’? Too many to count. Such is the life of a woman in STEM; constantly fighting for a chance to live out their dreams.

Women only make up 28% of the workforce in STEM. Men continue to outnumber women majoring in a STEM course in college. [2] This can be traced back to gender stereotypes. These stereotypes are introduced to children and continue to influence them as they become teenagers and then, adults. 

We all begin the same way: as babies. We’re born into this world innocent and without bias. Our mindsets and values have yet to be formed. Thus, it is easy to establish gender stereotypes. Several studies have shown that when you ask a child to draw a mathematician or scientist, girls are twice as likely to draw men instead of women. Boys almost always draw men in lab coats. This is because children start getting exposed to images of male mathematicians and scientists at an early age. These images then become ingrained in their subconscious. [3]

Moreover, children are also exposed to gender stereotypes at school where teachers might unwittingly and subtly contribute to these stereotypes. [3] Israeli researchers tested out this theory. They divided exams into two sets for grading. The first set consisted of students’ names. The second set did not. Researchers found that for the first set, teachers graded boys in their class higher. For the second set where teachers did not know which student owned the exam they were grading, they graded girls higher. Teachers often over-assess boys when it comes to math and science leading to a positive effect on how likely they are to choose a math or science career path whereas girls are more discouraged. [4]

Children are starting life out with this misconception that scientists are usually men in white coats which consequently deters girls from wanting to pursue a STEM career. This triggers self-doubt that continues to influence them as they grow into teenagers. Your teen years are important. It is a time for you to figure out your purpose and what you want to do in life. When you’ve been exposed to gender stereotypes as a child, you’re already at a disadvantage. These can influence your aspirations to enroll in a STEM field when you move on to college. [5] Unfortunately, gender stereotypes don’t stop there. Teenagers continue to be exposed to even more. 

Those working in the STEM field are often stereotyped as nerdy, socially awkward, and unattractive. Teens are very self-conscious. Teen girls, in particular, are often pressured to be attractive, friendly, and have a romantic partner, the exact opposite of the stereotype often associated with the STEM field. Thus, teenage girls are less likely to choose STEM as a career path. [6]

I interviewed a woman named Cindy Russel Sia working in the STEM field about her experiences. She says that when she was a teen, she initially aimed to study software engineering at university. However, she had an uncle and an aunt who told her that if she studied engineering, she’ll regret the decision because she’ll never be able to get married. She’ll be considered one of the boys. She was told that engineering should be a male subject only. She is one of the many who, as a teen, was discouraged from working in the STEM field because of her gender. [7]

Fortunately, she was able to realize that she would rather pursue her true passions. So, she became a research assistant with the Neurophysiology group of her university. Now, she is a management consultant delivering projects for Fortune 500 clients focusing on Health and Government sectors. You’d think gender stereotypes would stop at adulthood. You’d think that people would know better and that after all the work feminists throughout history have put into equal rights, males would treat their female counterparts equally in the office. Unfortunately, this is not true. Ms. Sia works in a male-dominated field. When asked whether this was difficult, she replied that because of the stereotypes put against women, it is difficult at first. It only becomes easy when they finally start admiring your potential and capabilities. She notes however that men would never have gone through these difficulties to begin with. [7]

Ms. Sia continues saying that there’s still this notion where women only belong in administrative roles rather than be taken more seriously in technical positions with greater career paths. [7] A study has shown that this is because most people believe that these women will get pregnant eventually and will need to let go of the career they’ve started. In fact, this study found that several colleagues with stay-at-home wives assume women will lose their drive to work well after having children thus, women’s competency is questioned. [8]

It’s hard enough to get into the STEM field and hired by companies because of a stereotype connoting women as ‘bitchy’, ‘bossy’, and ‘emotional’. [9] When you do get hired, you don’t get a break because colleagues still won’t take you seriously. In fact, the interviewee has experienced stereotypes many times in her career. Once, she joined a meeting to discuss the agenda for a project with a client. The Director she worked with said, “You don’t have to say anything. Let the boys flow.” This was extremely demeaning. Are women not as equally capable as ‘the boys’? [7]

Women in STEM are undeniably resilient as they continue to battle gender stereotypes that are introduced to someone as young as a child and continue to affect the self-esteem of a teenage girl and demean an adult woman. We have to find a way to eradicate these stereotypes if we want a more resilient and inclusive society. 

Let’s start big. 

For one, governments should make sure that women are given the same pay as men. In one research paper, analysts found that a woman working full time is only paid 80 cents for every dollar a man working full time is paid. Governments must create policies that make sure that companies do not discriminate against women and that companies create their own policies against gender stereotyping in the workplace and during the hiring process. [11]

Second, some womens’ dreams are snatched away because of forced marriage. It is imperative that governments protect their women from similar situations by setting a good policy on when a woman can get married and by making sure that the woman’s consent is given pertaining to the marriage. Governments are also greatly encouraged to join the UN in their effort to fast-track the revision of discriminatory laws in 100 countries by 2023. [10]

Governments are not the only ones who can help. You, an ordinary citizen, can contribute to the eradication of gender stereotypes. Start by raising awareness. Speak out and talk about gender disparities in the workplace. Create a bias-free learning environment whether this is at home or in the classroom. Be careful what you show to children. In working towards an inclusive society, we can make sure gender stereotypes come to an end and create a healthy environment for every person.

It began with a dream. It began with women like Hedy Lamarr who not only challenged these stereotypes but showed the world that women are just as capable as men. We know how this battle for equality began. How will it end? Will you help us make what began as a dream, a reality for every woman in every country? Will you work with us as we shift towards a more enlightened mankind? We are done being ignored by society because of our gender. Women are forces to be reckoned with. We are fierce, strong, and resilient. It is time society finally sees us this way. 

References

  1. Cheslak C. Hedy Lamarr [Internet]. National Women’s History Museum. 2018 – [cited 2022 Mar 12]. Available from: https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/hedy-lamarr 
  2. Hill C, Corbett C, St. Rose A. Why So Few?. AAUW [Internet]. 2010 [cited 2022 Mar 12]. Available from: https://www.aauw.org/app/uploads/2020/03/why-so-few-research.pdf 
  3. Berwick C. Keeping Girls in STEM: 3 Barriers, 3 Solutions [Internet]. Edutopia. 2019 – [2022 Mar 12]. Available from: https://www.edutopia.org/article/keeping-girls-stem-3-barriers-3-solutions 
  4. Lavy V, Sand E. On the Origins of Gender Human Capital Gaps: Short and Long Term Consequences of Teachers’ Stereotypical Biases. NBER [Internet]. 2015 [cited 2022 Mar 12]. Available from: https://www.nber.org/papers/w20909 
  5. Makarova E, Aeschlimann b, Herzog W. The Gender Gap in STEM Fields: The Impact of the Gender Stereotype of Math and Science on Secondary Students’ Career Aspirations. Frontiers in Education [Internet]. 2019 [cited 2022 Mar 12];(4). Available from: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/feduc.2019.00060/full 
  6. Starr C. “I’m Not a Science Nerd!”: STEM Stereotypes, Identity, and Motivation Among Undergraduate Women. Psychology of Women Quarterly [Internet]. 2018 [cited 2022 Mar 12];42(4). Available from: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0361684318793848 
  7. Cindy Russel Sia. Stereotypes of Women in STEM. [Personal interview, 2022 Feb] 2022 (Unpublished).
  8. Williams J. The 5 Biases Pushing Women Out of STEM [Internet]. Harvard Business Review. 2015 – [cited 2022 Mar 12]. Available from: https://hbr.org/2015/03/the-5-biases-pushing-women-out-of-stem 
  9. McKinnon M, O’Connell C. Perceptions of stereotypes applied to women who publicly communicate their STEM work. Humanities and Social Sciences Communications [Internet]. 2020 [cited 2022 Mar 12];7(160). Available from: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41599-020-00654-0 
  10. Morse M. Five Things World Leaders Can Do Right Now to Advance Gender Equality [Internet]. United Nations Foundation. 2020 – [cited 2022 Mar 12]. Available from: https://unfoundation.org/blog/post/five-things-world-leaders-can-do-right-now-to-advance-gender-equality/
  11. Gould E, Schieder J, Geier K. What is the gender pay gap and is it real?, 2018 [Internet]. Economic Policy Institute [cited 2022 Mar 13]. Available from: https://www.epi.org/publication/what-is-the-gender-pay-gap-and-is-it-real/

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