Removing the lifelong challenges women face in entering STEM fields

LUCY KNOWLES / AGGIE FILE

In male-dominated professions, women confront a culture where they’re devalued and discouraged

When I was a 7-year-old girl, I unwillingly held tightly to the impractical Barbies that oblivious family friends bestowed upon me, while I watched in envy as the 7-year-old boys were given building sets and scientific experiment sets. When I was a 15-year-old young woman, I was forced to slip on heavy Indian ghaghras and told to give second priority to studying for tests, while the 15-year-old young men were at home studying for the same classes I was taking. Their mothers bragged about how their sons had more important things to value than the festival we were celebrating — but of course, it was a daughter’s responsibility to spend time with her family.

As an 18-year-old woman, I recently watched in horror as some of my closest male friends mocked the deficit of women in STEM fields on Snapchat, deeming it an “annoying” complaint of women at my high school that was apparently talked about too much.

In universities around the nation, I have friends who recall being the only girl on their robotics team or the only female student in their mechanical engineering course. In India, some of my older female relatives are disturbed by the fact that they were expected to attend less expensive schools closer to home while their male counterparts were sent away to expensive boarding schools. Everywhere we look, there are stark reminders that women have been valued less in education over and over again.

In the United States, conditions have been rapidly improving, and as of 2015, there are more women with a college degree than men. At UC Davis the female-to-male ratio is 59 percent to 41 percent — a staggering difference between the sexes that trends throughout the U.S. This could be attributed to the diminishing discrimination against women and less pressure on women to get married instead of pursuing higher education. Although women dominate undergraduate education, only 17.9 percent of computer science degrees and 19.3 percent of engineering degrees are held by women, according to studies conducted in 2015 and 2016 by the National Science Foundation. Women are still falling behind in STEM-related fields, which has long been dominated by men, both in undergraduate education as well as in the workforce.

Race also plays a significant role in the percentages of STEM-related jobs, with Asians comprising 17 percent of science and engineering occupations even though they only make up 5 percent of the working-age population. Meanwhile, only 11 percent of these occupations are held by Hispanics, blacks and American Indians/Alaska Natives, who make up 27 percent of the U.S. working-age population.

It’s not surprising that the combination of identifying as a woman as well as part of a racial minority means that only 10 percent of employed scientists and engineers are minority women. Imagine being one of the very few women of color in a workplace dominated by predominantly white men and white women and facing discrimination at every turn on the way there.

There are two important aspects in overcoming the challenge of equalizing the playing field for women and men. First, people need to be aware of the challenges faced by women in entering certain fields, and they need to recognize that there’s a major deficit in how we encourage women to enter these fields. Women are not paid as much as men; they’re not provided with ample maternity leave nor is their partner provided with paternity leave; they face sexual harassment in the workplace or a number of other issues — issues that must be understood by all in order to be confronted.

Secondly, parents and our community must raise a generation of children who grow up in an environment that induces women to enter fields of their interests. Parents and other adults should encourage young women to play with cars, LEGOs, dinosaurs, helicopters or other toys that have been deemed appropriate mostly for young men. Perhaps these women will grow up to become involved in mechanical engineering, construction, paleontology or technology. The sooner we stop forcing stereotypes on young women, the sooner we will be able to flourish in the innovations they achieve through the fields of their own interests. We need to mend our society to foster a community that positively reinforces both girls and boys in pursuing their passions over fitting into a role that had been predetermined for them.

 

Written by: Akshita Gandra — agandra@ucdavis.edu

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