Women’s Disadvantage in STEM

February 7, 2023
Heather Kletzky

Denver, Colorado, United States

Class of 2025

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A young woman stands on stage receiving her bachelor's degree in engineering, gleaming with joy. All her hard work has paid off as she is about to enter a career so important to maintaining our society. This young woman is now a part of the 16% of women who make up engineering careers and 34% of STEM fields, an alarmingly low statistic (NGCP). Many people in our world refuse to recognize this gap between men and women in STEM related careers citing the implementation of Title IX as the elimination of the bias. But this gap is real, and can have dangerous implications if we ignore its existence. Women have a disadvantage at entering STEM careers because of severe math anxiety developed in adolescence, discrimination, and workplace bias. 

In 1999, a study was performed at the University of Michigan with students that identified as male and female and saw themselves as mathematically inclined. The researcher divided the students into two groups: one group was told that men perform better on math tests, the other was told that there is no gendered advantage. In the non-conditioned group, the men and women scored practically the same on the math test provided. In the conditioned group, the women fell short by 20 points. Since this experiment was performed, over 300 tests have reaffirmed its findings (AAUW 38-41). The women in this study that performed worse than their male counterparts are like so many others around the world subjected discrimination that hinder their ability to succeed. This study secured the theory that women are not worse at math because of their sex/gender, but tend to execute in lower numbers because they are conditioned to believe that they are inferior. This physiological phenomenon is known as math anxiety, a condition that develops primarily in young girls that carries into adulthood. Frontiers in Psychology published a research paper depicting causes and effects of math anxiety, finding that girls as young as 2nd grade are exposed to and develop this condition. The study’s conclusion cited that the only way to increase numbers of women in STEM is to fight discrimination in classrooms based on gender bias. “Considering the lifelong consequences of math anxiety on math performance and subsequent avoidance of STEM careers it is important to prevent the development of math anxiety in young children, especially in girls.” (Van Mier et al) One of the main reasons women have a disadvantage in STEM fields is because of the attitudes faceing math developed in adolescence. This manifests itself in two main ways: workplace bias, and discrimination. 

In 2017, the Pew Research Center found that 50% of women in STEM related fields have experienced discrimination based on gender and 36% of women have either experienced or witnessed sexual harassment in the workplace (Funk and Parker). This presence of workplace bias encourages women to leave STEM related fields, or not enter them in the first place. Fear discourages women in a multitude of ways. Fear of harassment pushes out women, fear of discrimination prevents women from entering STEM fields, and math anxiety makes women not even want to go near STEM. Large efforts to eliminate harassment, discrimination, and math anxiety would not only benefit the self-esteem of women, but would also benefit the economy by introducing a large number of eligible employees in a rapidly growing field. 

It’s only a new idea, however, that women could contribute significantly to STEM based work environments. In the early 20th century, Marie Curie, alongside her husband Pierre Curie, discovered the radioactive element polonium. Although both contributed equally to the discovery, Pierre Curie was the one nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics. Marie Curie was also eventually nominated for this discovery as well, however she had to fight to receive the prize (The Nobel Prize). This is one of many clear examples of the beginnings of discrimination based on gender in STEM fields. These trends continued throughout the following century, with prestigious STEM based colleges such as Dartmouth University and John Hopkins University not accepting women into their undergraduate programs till the 1970s. 

Title IX, passed in 1972, is commonly cited as the elimination of discrimination on the basis of sex in the United States. Title IX was a monumental moment in history and did make sex-based discrimination illegal. However, it did not end sexism and misogyny all together. The lasting effects of American life pre-Title IX still exist. Moreover, it’s important to note that significant improvements of women in STEM have been made since Title IX was implemented. 65% of professionals in Social Sciences and 48% of professionals in Life Sciences are women. While this achievement is entirely worth celebrating, it does not make up for the lack of women in more mathematically centered careers: Only 26% of women make up careers in computer and mathematical sciences, and as few as 16% in engineering (NGCP). These statistics are of course rooted in the main cause of math anxiety. 

Title IX may have significantly helped solve the gender gap, but there is so much more work to be done. Young girls are still exposed to math anxiety which pushes them away from STEM as young as grade school which can last into adult life. Women on a daily basis face harassment and discrimination in the work environment. This disadvantage is clearly evident in our world today and we should work to fight it.  

Work Cited

Carlton, Genevieve. “A History of Co-Ed Ivy League Schools.” TheBestSchools.org, 17 Aug. 2022, https://thebestschools.org/magazine/the-fight-for-co-ed-ivy-league-schools/#:~:text=Princeton%20and%20Yale%20began%20admitting,Dartmouth%20held%20out%20until%201972.

Funk, Cary, and Kim Parker. “Women and Men in STEM Often at Odds over Workplace Equity.” Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends Project, Pew Research Center, 21 Aug. 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2018/01/09/women-and-men-in-stem-often-at-odds-over-workplace-equity/.

Hill, Catherine, et al. “Why so Few?” AAUW, Feb. 2010, https://www.aauw.org/app/uploads/2020/03/why-so-few-research.pdf.

NGCP. “The State of Girls and Women in STEM.” NGCP, Mar. 2022, https://ngcproject.org/sites/default/files/downloadables/2022-03/ngcp_stateofgirlsandwomeninstem_2022b.pdf.

The Nobel Prize. “The Nobel Prize: Women Who Changed Science: Marie Curie.” The Official Website of the Nobel Prize - NobelPrize.org, The Nobel Prize, https://www.nobelprize.org/womenwhochangedscience/stories/marie-curie.

University of Rochester. Title IX Explained, University of Rochester, https://www.rochester.edu/sexualmisconduct/title-IX-explained.html.

Van Mier, Hanneke I., et al. “Gender Differences Regarding the Impact of Math Anxiety on Arithmetic Performance in Second and Fourth Graders.” Frontiers, Frontiers, 1 Jan. 1AD, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02690/full. 

Heather Kletzky is a BBG from Rocky Mountain Region and loves to travel!

All views expressed on content written for The Shofar represent the opinions and thoughts of the individual authors. The author biography represents the author at the time in which they were in BBYO.

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