Why Aren't More Women in STEM Studies?

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The seemingly simple comments “you are such a girl” or “get back in the kitchen” have more lasting effects than brief moments of annoyance. These negative remarks haunt girls as they grow into women and proceed into their careers.

Everyone is familiar with the idea of sexism and perhaps even with the experience of it. Sexism is prejudice, stereotyping or discrimination, typically against women. The social status of women has indeed improved throughout American history. Women have achieved the ability to vote with the 19th Amendment and the chance to work for real wages in the 20th century.

Yet, women still face significant setbacks. Specifically, women in the STEM fields are largely underrepresented, making up only 13 percent of engineers and 25 percent of mathematicians. Many people believe that such inequalities are due to the careers restricting a woman’s productivity and publicity, or men creating an undesirable and sexist work environment. Intolerable offenses have their places in history; the well-known James Watson and Francis Crick cheated Rosalind Franklin out of a Nobel Peace Prize by claiming her work on DNA structure as their own.

More recently, Ester Lederberg’s original work on the reproduction of bacterial colonies was attributed to her husband. While the previously stated reasons for under-representation are valid, a more prominent issue can answer the question as to why women are not widely seen in a STEM setting today. The inequality originates from faulty childhood influences, inevitably discouraging girls from even working to achieve their dreams. The media presents infinite images of exclusively male scientists, and male classmates ignore their female peers. The false illusion that women are less able than men directly affects the actions women choose to take in their lives.

In a recent study, researchers examined how sexism in the academic settings of math and science affected a young woman’s self-esteem and value of those subjects (Brown & Leaper, 2010). Adolescent girls of different ethnic backgrounds answered a series of survey questions that assessed how they viewed their own abilities, how they valued the subjects of math and science, and what levels of sexism they have experienced. The study showed that more exposure to academic sexism reduced a girl’s self-esteem and fostered a negative response to math and science. Women have faced major discouragement during the learning process, causing them to give up on math and science.

So how could you advance toward a field of study when the world has done all it can to stop you? The faulty premise of sexism is as old as time. Providing an answer to this problem seems impossible; however, baby steps are the best method. Communities as a whole should introduce math and science to girls in elementary and middle schools in the form of camps or programs. Early reinforcement will eliminate a childhood of negative influences. In high school, students should strive to create and effectively maintain clubs dedicated to the matter where girls, and even boys who are concerned about this topic, can go on trips to STEM facilities and discuss problems in the classroom. And on a smaller level, peers can provide encouragement and advice when a friend is struggling. The true work lies with the younger years when girls are most impressionable. Instead of filling them with pessimism regarding math and science, encourage them by building up a foundation based on passion, curiosity and drive.

Kaylene Lu is a participant of Uplift Plus at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a program that seeks out high-achieving high school students who have been historically underrepresented in higher education. Her editorial — written for her freshman English class this summer — is among the first in a series of posts by other Uplift Plus students to be published by Carolina Parent. The editorials, assigned by UNC English teacher Moira Marquis, asked students to research a contemporary social issue for young adults and share their findings.

Categories: Education, Guest Bloggers, Solutions, Technology, Teens