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Women in STEM: What Are the Barriers to Access & Why Do They Matter?

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Do you think that a lack of women in STEM affects you on a day to day basis?
Yes
No
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There are so many barriers that women face when it comes to equality in the workplace, and though this has changed and evolved due to a strong thread of activism throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, there is still a long ways to go. The STEM field is no exception. Also referred to as Science, Math, Engineering and Technology, STEM is a grouping of academic disciplines that has a long history of underrepresented and overlooked women. While it is true that this is slowly changing, many factors including sexual harassment, gendered education, and societal expectations and norms are part of the poor outcomes for women in STEM.

I was drawn to this issue primarily because it I see it every day. As a lifelong resident of the Silicon Valley, I have grown up right next to the rapidly changing tech industry and have seen firsthand the efforts to make it more diverse. However there are still significant problems that it faces. With this Catalyst Conference deep dive, I seek to examine the barriers to gender equality in STEM in both my local community and the broader world, as well as answer the question: What are the reasons for a gender inequality in STEM and how can these outcomes be improved? I also want to use this as a lens through which to examine the eighth UN sustainable development goal: decent work and economic growth. This goal, like many of the others is incredibly far reaching, and has effects that extend beyond work and into personal and community life. By placing this development goal and STEM in conversation with each other, I hope to extend awareness around the issue as well as promote understanding of potential solutions. 

Before I go any further, I feel that it is important to address my usage of gender in this project. Culturally, we have been moving towards recognizing gender as a spectrum:

rather than a binary:

This is great! It provides so much more inclusivity towards non-binary and genderqueer people.

With this project I mainly use the terms women, girls, etc., when referring to women and women aligned people. Keep in mind that it is not my intention whatsoever to erase or neglect non-binary people; in the rest of this article, when I reference “women” it should be understood that I am also including woman-aligned non-binary people. I also want to note that the bulk of my research was focused on the systemic barriers towards women and people of color. This isn’t to say that there are not barriers to lesbian, gay, and bisexual students, or that those women that I studied aren’t gay or bisexual.

Emerging research shows that there are significant hurdles that have previously been ignored. Hopefully in the future, there will be a greater understanding of the factors that contribute to this, but for the time being, I am focusing primarily on the broader systemic issue of women in STEM.

By now you definitely know that there is a discrepancy between men and women working in STEM fields; it is important to note however, that this topic contains a lot of nuance. There are also several places in which these discrepancies occur, the first of which is in childhood and early education. This is a crucial time for the development of STEM interest, but unfortunately the cultural dissuasion to enter these fields starts at this age. Young girls are socialized into a society that is practices both gender essentialism and policing. Gender essentialism assumes that there are certain inherent qualities or traits that men and women have. With this cultural mindset, young girls are encouraged to adopt gender stereotypes that center around communal socialization, a focus on family and children, and relationships with others, while boys are encouraged to acquire concrete skills, experiment with their physical surroundings, and practice activities that emphasize problem solving and personal gain (Dasgupta & Stout 2014). In our society, gender policing allows this socialization to perpetuate by punishing any deviation from the gendered exceptions that are assigned. Because subjects like math are generally associated with boys rather than girls, gender policing prevents young girls from pursuing and identifying with math and related subjects. The policing that occurs comes from many sources, including peers, media, and parents–especially from mothers. This internalization of STEM as a non-feminine interest is ingrained early–and is thus harder to break in the long run.

As girls emerge into adulthood, the barriers to entrance into STEM interest are still present. In this stage of life, the biggest problem for lack of STEM retention is messaging. As young women enter higher education, the world around them signals that they do not belong in these fields, which decreases motivation and engagement. With doubts about whether they belong, their achievements and self-image suffer (Dasgupta & Stout 2014). It also doesn’t help that women are outnumbered by men in their field, especially in computer sciences, engineering, physical sciences and mathematics.

Another contributing factor to this is the lack of same-sex role models and mentors in the STEM fields. Female STEM students with a professor of the same-sex have measurable improvements in their confidence and feelings of belonging–vital for retention in these academic disciplines.

In the professional world, the barriers to access and advancement make it difficult for women to progress in their careers. Hiring is only the first hurdle–the social climate in which they find themselves is less than inclusive and sometimes outright hostile (Dasgupta & Stout 2014). It doesn’t help that many of the demands of childrearing are shunted onto women, who are then forced to let their professional life suffer.

A crucial part of my research was understanding global trends. Much of the discrimination that women in Western countries face is highlighted, while women in other countries are forgotten. This is not just unfortunate, but irresponsible. The difficulties that women of color face in STEM are often compounded or expressed in different ways. For example, while the rates for women IT workers in the US are falling, in India they are rising. This is in part due to the state’s encouragement of women’s access to educational opportunities, which is not as present in the United States. However in both of these environments, discrimination is present. This discrimination can come in several forms, including temporal and spatial, and is implemented differently in the two cultures. Transnational technology companies can be beneficial in identifying and reducing some of these barriers, but can also create “hybridized” discrimination, which combines the two models (Poster, 2013). In this way, it is clearly shown how corporate interests can be weaponized against working women, including those on an international basis.

To gain more of a nuanced look into women in STEM in my community, I interviewed Debra Kadner, who is the co-founder and head of product at a company called Eskalera. Together, we talked about her company and her general experience as a woman in Silicon Valley. As she holds a M.Eng in Civil & Environmental Engineering from Cornell University, she is involved very closely with STEM, as well as the culture of Silicon Valley. She knows how toxic it can be for women trying to find fair and equitable work–and this inspired her to create change. The company that she co founded is actually centered around trying to improve inclusiveness and diversity in the technology industry. Part of her work includes creating artificial intelligence that detects biased language in emails or notes and suggests alternatives. She said that what they are trying to do is essentially “level the playing field” for women and create more of a culture of inclusivity.

Image credit from Eskalera

Many of the things that we talked about were related to my research. She noted that when she graduated, only about 16% of her engineering class were women, a disappointingly low number. She also discussed how the culture around STEM made it difficult for her–as a student she “got a lot of flack” from other women around her. Luckily, she has seen firsthand how things are changing for the better. One of these is that inclusion has improved dramatically. She talked about two main reasons for this: the first is that there is an increased demand for more diversity, and the second is that businesses actually function better when there is more inclusion. This is a powerful incentive for the changing demands of the market.

What Debra talked about really reflects the Western culture of discriminatory practices against women. Because technical skill is seen as a masculine trait, gender hierarchies in the tech industry are organized around it. This leads to a devaluation of women in the workplace, where they are seen as non-technical, and consequently non-essential. However, if women show themselves as technical, men in these environments overemphasize the technical aspects of their own work as well as quiz women on technical mastery. This creates a hostile work environment for these women.

As a contrast, in other countries such as India, discrimination occurs through limiting how women work spatially. This may sound confusing, but it really isn’t. Put more simply, this type of discrimination limits where and when women work as well as the people they work with. Under the pretense of protecting women, they are often not allowed to work at night, or are spatially segregated (Poster, 2013). This leads to a restrictive environment where women are subtly made to be of lesser importance. Debra didn’t experience this–it is mostly a problem in non–Western working environments. However, like I talked about before, this type of discrimination isn’t necessarily worse – it just impacts women in different ways.

Even though there are so many subtle and not-so-subtle barriers to access, there are a number of ways in which we can make a change. During adolescence, interventions in education are the way to go. One proven method of increasing engagement is by creating collaborations between K-12 schools and higher education. Exposing young girls to real scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and tech innovators creates broad impacts on the social messaging that these students receive, and can counteract the societal pressure that they otherwise face. Additionally, it is important that at least 50% of these scientists are women, as seeing same-sex role models promotes engagement and outcomes for girls. Another useful tool is harnessing the communally-oriented standards that are stereotypically women’s traits. By framing STEM as a way to help others and work together, it becomes more approachable.

In early adulthood, proven solutions include allowing greater opportunities for peer networking and promoting diversity. It also helps to provide a greater number of role models and mentors for young women. In professional life, these same solutions apply, but with additional measures. De-identification of applicants (in other words, a blind review) increases diversity and can hinder gender bias in hiring. It also helps to create more inclusive workplaces, which is something that I mention earlier in my discussion about Eskalera. Something that has been a topic of discussion lately has been women’s work-life balance. Helping women transition back into STEM after taking time to have of raise children can dramatically improve professional development.

All of these seem like pretty lofty goals, but there are things that you can do too. One of the biggest problems is culture–by utilizing inclusive language and actions, individuals can make a big difference. This especially comes into play in early development. By counteracting stereotypical messaging, we can improve retention in STEM for young girls.

I think that because this is an issue that I see around me all the time, I actually became kind of jaded towards it. It sort of became a part of the world that I just accepted as fact. Obviously this is not true, but diving deeply into the barriers towards women in STEM really allowed me to understand this issue better. I think that the most valuable part of this project was my interview with Debra. She offered some incredible insights and really provided a lot of nuances in my understanding. Part of what she said really stuck with me: there is discrimination towards women in so many industries–in STEM it is just more talked about.

Made with Padlet

Chang, Emily. “ ‘Oh My God, This Is so F—-Ed Up’: Inside Silicon Valley’s Secretive Orgiastic Dark Side.” Hive, Feb. 2018, www.vanityfair.com/news/2018/01/brotopia-silicon-valley-secretive-orgiastic-inner-sanctum.

Dasgupta, Nilanjana, and Jane G. Stout. “Girls and Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.” Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, vol. 1, no. 1, 2014, pp. 21–29., doi:10.1177/2372732214549471.

Poster, Winifred R. “Global Circuits of Gender: Women and High-Tech Work in India and the United States.” Gender, Sexuality & Feminism, vol. 1, no. 1, 2013, doi:10.3998/gsf.12220332.0001.103.

The State of Girls and Women in STEM. National Girls Collaborative Project, 2016.

Wright, Michelle M. “Finding a Place in Cyberspace: Black Women, Technology, and Identity.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, vol. 26, no. 1, 2005, pp. 48–59., doi:10.1353/fro.2005.0017.

Find all of my sources that I used here! All infographics were designed and created by me.

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COMMENTS: 5
  1. April 25, 2019 by Claire

    Hi Leona! I love your project! As a member of a women in STEM club at my own high school, this topic is super close to my heart. I found your connection to your community through Debra Kardner to be super interesting and informative!

    • April 27, 2019 by Leona.Das

      Thanks Claire! My interview with Debra was one of my favorite parts of doing this project. I’m glad you liked it!

  2. April 27, 2019 by Phoebe

    Hi Leona! This page is amazing! I connected to your topic quite a bit because I am very STEM oriented in my academics. I Thought starting your page with a poll was a really great way to get us involved. In my expereince, I see the lack of women in STEM on a day to day basis. In my 15 person computer science class, I am one of 2 women. I also really liked how you explained the gender spectrum before diving into your interview.

    • April 28, 2019 by Leona.Das

      Wow thanks for sharing your experience Phoebe! This project was definitely inspired by the type of problems that you bring up. I’m glad that you related to my project!

  3. April 30, 2019 by Michaela Kim

    Hi Leona, thanks for a great page and project!! As a woman in STEM, it was really interesting to see what you had to say and was able to relate to a lot of information that you presented. It’s nice knowing that there are more and more students becoming aware of this disparity and are taking action to initiate change! I thought that you had really good ways to get people engaged on your site, and your infographics were really interesting. Also, loved how to conduct an interview! Something that I wondered after looking through your project is when the gender balance is finally going to be equal – there’s definitely no hard number, and it’s really hard to tell, but it makes me wonder and wish that day would come sooner! Thanks for a great project!

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