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Feminspire | April 16, 2014

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Women and Men in Science: We Can Close the Gap

Women and Men in Science: We Can Close the Gap

As a first-year college student pursuing a degree in science, I’m beginning to learn what it feels like to represent your entire gender and to give up on trying to figure out if that older gentleman is confused about your presence at a conference because you’re a woman or for some other reason. I may never be sure if the young man in the front row harassing the female professor about her area of expertise is doing it because he’s an arrogant sexist jerk or because he’s just a regular arrogant jerk, but I do know that these subtle hints of “you don’t belong here” are doing real damage to the aspirations of millions of girls and women. We’ve already discussed why women are underrepresented in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math fields; now it’s time to consider how we can change that.

Actively Counter Misinformation on Gender Differences

You know how women are better at empathizing and men are better at math? Yeah, that’s actually not true at all. Harmful stereotypes like these are more influential than we usually care to acknowledge, often leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even in areas where actual performance is equal, when a certain group is reminded that they are supposed to be bad at something, their performance weakens. Now imagine that the message of “women are bad at science, men are bad at feelings” is subtly expressed to everyone starting at birth. A test of social sensitivity or math only finds gender differences because the participants are aware of how they are expected to perform. Playing with gender identity has a huge impact on success at skills usually thought to be better suited for the opposite sex. When a group of people are asked to write a first-person story from the perspective of someone named Ashley, they perform significantly worse on tests of math skills than a control group.

It’s not enough to stop teachers from making gendered statements about math and science. The children are getting that message every day as they interact with society. The myth has to be actively dispelled. Until we stop subconsciously teaching our daughters that they are less intelligent or capable than our sons, they will go through their academic lives with an unfair handicap.

Stop Priming Gender

Now it’s time to be realistic: We’ll probably never be able to completely dismantle the myths about women in science (at least not in this lifetime). However, it greatly helps women’s performance to remove all reminders of gender and stereotypes while they are testing. When women are asked to tick a box declaring their gender as “female” they self-asses their math ability as being lower. Men who declare their gender as male rate their math ability as higher than men who don’t. Constant reminders of gender create a lack of confidence in women’s math and science ability: All it takes to deter her from pursuing a major and career that she’s capable of.

At my University, the scantrons we use for all of our exams still have a place for us to mark our genders. I avoid that little box like the plague. But even that reminder that gender exists, that I’m stereotyped as being bad at math. could have an effect on my score. When I say “stop priming gender,” I mean avoid anything that causes students to suddenly have increased awareness of their gender designation, and thus could affect their confidence and their performance. It’s important to focus on the positive stereotypes that all students in a certain setting share. For example, women who are primed to think of themselves as students at a “select private college” do better on a mental rotation test (stereotyped for men) than women who are primed to think of themselves in terms of their gender.

Include the Achievements of Scientific Women

After years of learning about Watson, Crick, Mendel, Darwin, Newton and Einstein, the day that my biology professor introduced a new name, Rosalind Franklin, completely took me by surprise. The story doesn’t end well (her work was stolen and the thieves got a Nobel Piece Prize for their work based on her discovery), but I was immediately woken up with the realization that seeing people of your gender (and for people of color, of your race) succeed matters. As much as I admire Tesla, his success story means nothing to me compared to Sally Ride. When we learn about the theories and experiments of women, I don’t feel like I’m an intruder in a man’s world. The science classroom becomes somewhere that I feel like I belong. Pushing the limits of gender is easier when you can follow the example of the women who came before you.

This is a real phenomenon: When women feel like outsiders, they lose interest. But when they feel like equals, gender is a nonissue. A 2007 Stanford University study examined this by collecting a group of STEM majors and asking their opinion on a STEM “summer leadership conference.” Some were shown a video of the conference that depicted the gender ratio as 1:1, some were shown an accurate depiction of STEM gender differences: 3 men for every woman. The men and women who saw the video with no gender differences were both equally interested in attending the conference, but the women who saw the unbalanced video showed signs of “psychological vigilance,” less interest and less conviction that they belonged in their field at all. Because awareness of the status quo is perpetuating unbalance for many generations to come, the need to present the STEM fields as if they are equally accessible to men and women is dire.

Respect the Women in Academia and STEM Fields

Anyone who’s ever heard of ‘mansplaining’ knows that being a professional woman comes with extra helpings of condescension and exclusion. Cordelia Fine’s book Delusions of Gender gives many examples:

Female engineers whom men assumed were administrative assistants; senior women assumed to be the most junior person in the room; double takes in the meeting room at the sight of a woman… a woman in a senior engineering position blogged that “many of our clients think I’m in the meetings to take notes for the men… some even apologize for boring me with the technical discussions, assuming I have no idea what they’re talking about.”

This hostile environment, which only gets worse towards the top of the ladder, is actively driving women away from male-dominated careers. A study conducted by the Center for Work-Life Policy found that “the top two reasons why women leave [their science careers] are the hostile macho cultures — the hard hat culture of engineering, the geek culture of technology or the lab culture of science … and extreme work pressures.”

Part of respect is earning fair wages. This graphic shows how the relative value of a woman’s degree decreases as she becomes more educated. With each successive degree, the average woman gets a smaller and smaller percentage of the benefit her male counterpart would receive. The more we rise “above our place,” the less we are relatively valued.  

women men pay gap

Some, but certainly not all, of the difference can be found in the way that women are socialized to think of themselves as poorly suited for some higher-paying jobs. If we begin to remove this barrier by putting an end to untrue stereotypes and mistreatment of professional women, the gap will get smaller as more women are welcomed into STEM careers.

Written by Sara Wofford