According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), in a study funded by the National Science Foundation regarding the underrepresentation of women in science, women make up only 28% of the workforce in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math – a field known as STEM. In addition, the highest-paid STEM jobs, which are in computer science and engineering, are mostly occupied by professionals of the male gender. Although women have made impressive progress throughout the past fifty years in education and in the workplace in areas such as law, business, and even medicine, in scientific fields, the progress is slower and less impactful. But why is it so? Why are women, despite occupying more and more space in other fields, having so little representation in science? One major reason is the sexism that girls are subjected to when majoring in STEM.
The educational system is persistently steering girls away from math and science, creating a heavily male-dominated and hostile environment for them, mostly, at university level. Only 21% of the student body in engineering is composed of women, while in computer science, the percentage falls to 19%. In order to write this piece, five women majoring in STEM, at undergraduate and graduate levels, branching from engineering, mathematics, and educational technology from Brazil, the United States, and Finland were interviewed. Out of the five girls, those in Engineering and Maths agreed that their peers are mostly male and shared their feelings regarding the state of affairs. “It creates a certain degree of discomfort and is quite demotivating”; “ It is demotivating most of the time [to see few women in my area of study]”.
Furthermore, it was asked if they encounter sexism and sex-based discrimination from male colleagues and professors. Three of the girls decided to share their experiences. “It was about the little things, like when professors would prefer answers given by my male colleagues and were rather condescending”; “Especially at the beginning of the degree, men would question me, try to evaluate my knowledge regarding certain subjects as if to gauge my cognitive abilities, to evaluate whether I was good enough for the course. Sometimes, their questions weren’t even related to the course or were way too ahead of our level of study”.
One of the girls added that while interning in the field of mechanical engineering as an analyst for engine calibration, she had to endure unwanted compliments from male work colleagues and had to hear jokes about how she would be a better asset to the team if she was cleaning and organizing the material. This goes to show that female students in STEM have to face gender stereotypes, where their abilities in math are underestimated as early as preschool. A male-dominated culture creates an unsupportive and unattractive environment for girls and minorities and provides fewer role models to inspire womxn to pursue a career in STEM.
There is, however, a silver lining. Despite hardships, women have displayed resilience in the face of adversity. They have gradually begun to occupy more space in the STEM field. Students and professionals have been more vocal about issues surrounding STEM departments. One of the interviewed girls shares: “ As the years went by, I faced less male chauvinism and started to feel more comfortable [at university]. As the topics became more specialized, it was apparent that the professors were more capable of handling the small number of female students while those who made sexist comments or had a sexist attitude, ended up leaving university”. In addition, another girl said that females made up almost 50% of their classmates, showing a slight improvement from other technological areas where less than five women enrolled during a whole year.
It is undeniable that, in comparison to their male counterparts, the education of women has been neglected. It took the University of Bologna, the oldest university in the world founded in 1088, almost seven centuries to open up for female students (in the 18th century). The education of women started being normalized in the 1800s, mostly in the United States and Europe, with the inception of female-only colleges and the very first few coeducational universities. To this day, out of 100 STEM students, only 35 are women, according to a research by STEM Women. Although an improvement is clear as social scenarios have been evolving, it is still undeniable that anecdotes shared by the interviewees indicate a prevalent condition across countries, and advancement is required at a much faster pace to bring about gender equality in the scientific sphere.
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