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Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The gender gap in STEM

Why women are underrepresented in STEM and how we can start to close the gap

 

By EMILIE BROWN — emrbrown@ucdavis.edu

 

If you are a science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) major, I’m willing to bet that at some point during your time in college, you have found yourself in a classroom or lecture hall with an alarming gender imbalance. As a woman and a physics major (one of the most male-dominated majors), I have experienced this countless times. The truth is that gender gaps exist in almost every STEM subject today, mostly due to the negative stereotypes and lack of support for women in these fields. 

While, statistically, men and women are equally qualified to enroll as STEM majors out of high school, a gap begins to appear in college. Women are far less likely to declare a STEM major once in college than men and they are 23% more likely to drop out of STEM fields than their male counterparts. When it comes to entering the workforce, the gender gap becomes even more apparent. Around 44% of STEM jobs are taken by women, but in some fields, that number is significantly less. Only 28% of computer science jobs, 16% of engineering jobs and 16% of physics jobs are held by women.

So why is there such a gap between men and women employed in these fields, and what changes during college that makes women want to leave STEM? When I started asking questions like these in high school, my teachers told me that women just aren’t cut out for or smart enough to pursue these careers. Although many women have been told at some point in their lives that men are just better at math, more cut out for STEM or just smarter, this isn’t the case. 

In reality, the gap is a product of the different ways that women and men in STEM are treated and portrayed. The fields of arts and humanities are often linked to women, while science and math are more often linked to men. 

This creates an implicit bias against women in STEM fields that is common, even among individuals who claim to actively reject that stereotype. Many people assume women are less competent and less likable in their STEM jobs than their male counterparts unless their success in that field is abundantly clear. These biases lead to fewer women studying STEM topics and moving into STEM careers.  

As any woman in a STEM field knows, being outnumbered can be discouraging. Gender diversity in STEM fields has been proven to lead to increased productivity, creativity and innovation. Women have unique views that should not be overlooked in any workplace. 

One thing we can do to diversify the field is expose girls to STEM in middle and high school, as well as encouraging them to take science and math classes. This can lead to higher rates of girls choosing to pursue STEM majors after high school and lessen the gender bias in those groups.

Women in STEM are also much less prevalent in books, media and pop culture. This means that young girls often don’t have role models to inspire and interest them. Introducing young girls to female characters in STEM at a young age can encourage and motivate them to continue studies in those fields. 

While the gender gap in STEM fields remains prevalent today, the amount of women entering STEM fields is slowly on the rise. Programs that work to inspire middle and high school girls are starting to change the statistics. For now, though, the biggest change we can make to lessen the gender gap is to stop assuming women are less capable than men in STEM.

 

Written by: Emilie Brown — emrbrown@ucdavis.edu

 

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