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The STEM Gender Gap in Focus
At age four, I wanted to become a doctor when I grew up. My pediatrician was a woman, I had an aunt who was a general practitioner, and all my science teachers had been women. It was something that I thought was fully attainable for me. Throughout the first half of high school, I chased this dream. Like a lot of others, I’m going to be a marine biologist, I thought. Maybe an architect. No, a neuroscientist.
It wasn’t until I heard the term Women in STEM that I felt othered. How come women need to be singled out like this? There must have been a problem, and maybe my dreams were more distant than they seemed.
Recently, I had the chance to visit the Iron Willed: Women in STEM exhibit at the Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre, presented by Ingenium. By telling the stories of women in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) today and throughout history, the displays conveyed the structural and cultural barriers self-identified women and other equity-seeking groups face in the field, as well as the ongoing need for systemic change.
The alienation of women in STEM begins with what children learn in their everyday environments. Stereotypes such as girls not being good at math are picked up early, maintaining a norm where women are seen as less competent than men in STEM subjects. To illustrate, about 99% of children asked to draw a scientist in the 1960s and 1970s drew a man (Nature, 2018). In contrast, about one in three drawings included female figures in the 2010s. From this we see that representation evidently matters; when young girls are able to imagine themselves in these spaces, they are more likely to go after STEM careers and disprove harmful stereotypes that contribute to the underrepresentation of women in science.
Unfortunately, false beliefs persist through adulthood whether we are aware of them or not. Implicit biases are unconscious or involuntary attitudes that are often rooted in childhood experiences (Aronson et al., 2017). Many people harbour an implicit bias that associates men with STEM roles, which can manifest in the diminishment of women’s qualifications in the hiring process and the exclusion of women from promotions. It also influences the all-too-common feeling of imposter syndrome among women in STEM.
The metaphor of the leaky pipeline is often used to describe the STEM gender gap, in which women drop out of these fields before reaching senior positions. A huge factor in this phenomenon is the experience or anticipation of hostile workplace environments for gender minorities in STEM–a problem that has existed for generations. When women gained the ability to work in the 20th century, schools and workplaces forced women to resign in anticipation that they would marry and have children, and consequently would be unable to have a professional career. Traces of this can still be seen today through pregnancy harassment, where many women and gender-diverse scientists are forced to resign and are thus unable to advance their careers based solely on their pregnancy. In contrast, the trajectory of mens’ careers in STEM don’t falter as much when they have children. It is isolating and exhausting to be continually underestimated, overlooked, underpaid, excluded, and harassed based on your gender. Because of this, people simply leave as a means of protection.
The barriers are more exaggerated for people identifying with multiple marginalized identities. The issue revolving around the gender inequities in STEM must acknowledge the idea of intersectionality, where other modes of identity like race, sexual orientation, citizenship, religion, and gender identity can intersect and affect a person’s lived experience of oppression; and in this case, their careers in STEM. In 1968, promising computer scientist and engineer Lynn Conway was fired by her supervisors during her gender transition. Similarly, Dr. Irene Uchida was held in an Internment Camp in World War II, despite introducing cytogenetics (the study of chromosomes and heredity) to Canada and doing ground-breaking research on radiation.
Because of systemic and cultural prejudices, the world of STEM is losing out on brilliant minds. There are evidently valuable perspectives in the industries of science, technology, engineering, and math that are missing. Deanna Burgart, chemical engineer of Cree heritage tackles this by encouraging the participation of Indigenous groups through her work around environmental sustainability. I hope for a tomorrow where women of all backgrounds can step into STEM spaces feeling like they belong and are deserving. I long for them to feel safe to exercise their knowledge, and inspire a new generation to do the same. Mae Jemison, engineer, physician, NASA astronaut, and the first African-American woman in space, said to “never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations.” I wish for members of underprivileged groups who want to pursue STEM to hear her words now.
Donate to the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre here.
Aronson, E., Wilson, T. D., Fehr, B., Akert, R. M. (2017). Social Psychology (6th Ed.). Pearson Education Inc.
Guglielmi, G. (2018, March 20). US kids’ doodles of scientists reveal changing gender stereotypes. Nature. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-03346-7
About the Author: Alyssa Victorino is an undergraduate student at Simon Fraser University (SFU) pursuing a Major is Psychology, a Minor in Sociology, and a Certificate in Social Justice. She is currently the Program Assistant with the Sexual Violence Support and Prevention Office (SVSPO).