Where Are The Women In The Sciences?
Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are becoming hot topics for anyone concerned with boosting our economy. These fields are some of the fastest-growing and the most vital when it comes to maintenance of government structures and a country’s power. One would think that this would mean that people are flocking to STEM, and they are — except for women.
In 2010, there were 7.6 million STEM jobs in the United States, and this number is expected to grow 17% before 2018. Workers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math also tend to make an average of $34 dollars a hour more than those working in other sectors. President Obama, in his 2012 State of the Union called for the retraining of unemployed adults with STEM skills so they could more easily find jobs. He went on to say, “growing industries in science and technology have twice as many openings as we have workers who can do the job.” In a time of 8.1% employment (for August 2012), that is a bewildering statistic. Even more puzzling are these statistics: women, even though they hold almost half of all of the jobs in the economy, only hold about 25% of jobs in the STEM fields. Why is there such a huge discrepancy between men and women in science, technology, engineering and math even though they are considered the most important fields in the modern economy? And is there anything being done about it?
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, boys and girls have similar scores in the science and mathematics proficiency test sections at age 9. It is not until age 13 that a gap between boys’ and girls’ performance in these areas appears. In fact this is true among many industrialized countries, especially in science. Some might try to say this is an evolutionary difference, but many experts are attributing these differences to stereotype bias.
In a study done by psychologists Toni Schmader and Matthias Mehl, STEM professionals of both genders were asked to wear an Electronically Activated Recorder (EAR). These EARs recorded thirty-second clips of conversation each twelve minutes, providing a random sample of conversations from participating professionals each day. Schmader and Mehl found a discrepancy between the way that male and female colleagues in the STEM fields spoke to one another. When male colleagues spoke to each other about their work, they were generally energized by the conversations, as with female and female work related conversations. When females and males talked to each other about their research, women reported being disengaged in these conversations. The same thing occurred with competency. In male to female conversations, the women sounded less competent, but in conversations with other women, they sounded no less competent than any of the men. Schmader and Mehl say this research powerfully points to the pervasiveness of the stereotype that women are not as competent or engaged in STEM fields. As evidence, they point out that the only time the women’s competency and engagement are effected are when they speak with males. Other studies have shown this same stereotype bias to be present within schools among teachers. Even the best, most fair teachers tend to treat boy and girl students differently, especially in the areas of math and science. Teachers are more likely to question a girl’s math ability than a boy. This tells us that the stereotype is so ingrained in our society, that even those who say they do not believe it still subconsciously form their behaviors around it.
Photo courtesy of Barry Batchelor/Guardian
In an effort to negate the evident effects of the STEM stereotype, groups around the country have initiated programs to draw more women into these fields. A number of education groups offer scholarships specifically for women in STEM fields to encourage women to continue in their studies. Among these groups are the Society of Women Engineers, the Business and Professional Women’s Foundation, the Girl Scouts of the USA, and The Center for Women in Technology. Even companies like Microsoft, Google, and Sony provide scholarships for women pursuing an education in STEM. For those who are industrious enough to take advantage of them, there are plethora opportunities available.
Research has not provided any concrete conclusions on whether these scholarship and incentive initiatives are the cause, but the picture does seem to be looking brighter for women in science, technology, engineering and math. Although women currently in doctoral programs in STEM have to publish about three more papers in prestigious journals than men to be considered successful, it seems the gap is nevertheless shrinking in performance by middle school students. Thirty years ago, mathematically exceptional middle school boys who take the SAT and score 700 or more on the math section outnumbered their female counterparts thirteen to one. Now that number has shrunk to just three boys to every one girl. This shows us that despite stereotype bias’ persistent deterrence of women from STEM fields, girls and women are continuing to pursue, enjoy, and excel in these fields. Perhaps in another thirty years, we will see these young women at the forefront of science, technology, engineering, and math, and thus, at the forefront of our world economy.
Written by Sarah Garner
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