The STEM gender gap ‒ why it is hard to be a girl in STEM

Explained: the reasons behind why so few women engage in STEM.

Writer: Maja Bronowska
Editor: Anastasiya Kolesnichenko
Artist: Lucie Gourmet

Diversity is what drives science – novelty and innovation thrive when people from different countries, of different religions and genders come up with new bright ideas. As a woman, I like to think that this is the case, although it might be just the image I conjure up in my mind. In reality, we observe a phenomenon where female students and scientists are underrepresented in STEM known as the gender gap. What are the causes of this phenomenon? Can this problem be easily solved? 

The world of science is ruled by males ‒ less than 30% of researchers globally are women. This number varies between regions and countries. In South and West Asia the number is below 20%, but in Europe, females account for 40% of researchers. In the healthcare sector, 80% of workers are females, but only 22% of them occupy management positions or higher.

Only a small fraction of females pursue higher education in STEM-related fields. Once again, the number varies between subjects. It is higher in biological sciences than in computer science, physics or mathematics. Globally, only 3% of students enrolled on information and communication technology higher education courses are women. That percentage increases to 5% in mathematics and looks better in engineering where females make up 8% of enrolled students. Irrespective, these numbers are remarkably low, and they have a direct impact on the number of women who later decide to pursue careers in STEM.

In the past, females were overtly deprived of educational opportunities, but in large parts of the world those barriers have been abolished. So, what keeps women away from STEM in many cases are psychological factors, such as social anxiety and gender-related stereotypes. Girls are often more anxious about their mathematical performance according to a study conducted by the University of Glasgow. The  stress response leads to secretion of cortisol, which at excessive levels diminishes learning abilities. We also avoid activities associated with undue stress and anxiety. Furthermore, girls experience less mathematical anxiety in countries with high power index, which is an anthropological concept referring to how power is distributed between members of a given society. One frequently cited explanation is that there are fewer comparisons between men and women in these countries, although they usually have less gender equality.

The maths-phobia hypothesis, ironically, has some grounding in science. Neuroimaging studies suggest that when self-reported anxiety in mathematics was present, neural patterns associated with the fear response, learnt in childhood, were activated. Other physiological responses were observed; when females were asked to solve a mathematical problem, their brains were more likely to act as if they were exposed to painful stimuli. Nevertheless, those findings do not suggest biological predisposition; they can be accounted for by learnt behaviour, perpetuated by social norms and stigma. 

Many female students drop out of their courses or, after graduation, decide not to aim for a career in STEM. Female role models are missing; it is much harder to name female scientists than male ones. James Watson and Francis Crick have much more recognition for identifying the structure of DNA than Rosalind Franklin, who contributed tremendously to that discovery. We observe a huge Nobel prize gender gap ‒ only 20 women were awarded the prize in science compared to 587 male scientists. 

It is high time that STEM is populated with its fair share of women. Not only can skewed gender representation in STEM restrain future female researchers from entering the industry, but also it sustains sexism at a systemic level. The workplace is still fraught with obstacles ‒ the gender pay gap, for one. According to the Royal Academy of Engineering, only 12% of engineers in the UK are female and on average they earn ten times less than their male colleagues. What is equally concerning is the fact that by the age of 35, over half of female engineering professionals leave the field for other sectors, contrasted to only 17% of males.

Women are often left alone to navigate an impossible work-home trade-off and many fear the financial repercussions of pregnancy. Pregnancy becomes a burden, making females re-evaluate their values and time. The numbers are staggering: 43% of women who are STEM professionals transition to part-time jobs or change their work environment entirely after giving birth. In contrast, the percentage of men who become fathers and leave their full-time jobs in STEM is only 23%. Women are more likely to continue to follow their career in STEM when they have a respectable working environment, flexible working hours and equal parental leave.  

What will the future of STEM look like? Will more women engage in STEM? There are no clear answers to these questions. The world is constantly changing together with the approach to education and gender roles. It will likely take decades of structural change to give women the equal footing they deserve in the world of STEM.

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