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Why so few? Investigating the reasons behind the lack of women in STEM By Drake Goodman

The Problem

The lack of women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields is prevalent around the country. According to Forbes, women make up 27 percent of all computer science jobs and only one in seven engineers are women. The underrepresentation of women in these fields is an especially glaring issue considering that women hold 60 percent of all bachelor degrees in the country.

In recent generations, there has been a cultural shift in the United States as more women enter the workfield and receive a college education. In fact, according to Statista, the percentage of women attending college has risen from 13.6 percent in 1980 to 34.6 percent today. So if women are attending college at a higher rate than ever before, why is the difference between women and men in the STEM fields still so large?

Even at Redwood, the number of girls in AP and honors science, math, computer science and engineering classes is much fewer than boys. In all engineering classes, girls make up 14 percent of the students. Likewise, in AP Computer Science, that number is just 11 percent. In all AP Calculus classes, the percentage is 38 percent, and 26 percent of Honors Physics students are girls.

With this being said, the female population at Redwood exceeds the male population in other advanced classes. In AP English Composition and Language and AP English Composition and Literature, the female population is 65 percent and 71 percent, respectively.

Based on this, the issue is not that women are not taking advanced classes in general, but that there is a definite lack of women taking advanced STEM classes. There are several reasons to explain this shortage of women in fields that have long been dominated by men.

Women filled 47 percent of all U.S. jobs in 2015 but held only 24 percent of STEM jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce

STEM Stereotypes

According to the Guardian, while students are influenced by being in a classroom with their same gender, the ultimate explanation for this phenomenon is that students turn away from certain classes if they believe they cannot succeed. This mainly is caused by stereotypes, a study conducted by the University of Washington confirmed, especially regarding women in STEM classes. Junior Sarah Conant, who is taking AP Chemistry, AP Environmental Science and Honors Biomedical Science, believes that females need to see representation in these fields in order to look past this stereotype.

“The media needs to advertise more women in these fields because right now it is a fairly male-dominated field, so including more women through the media could entice them to join,” Conant said.

A study conducted by the American Association of University Women found that when one believes they cannot learn or succeed, that thought pattern actually inhibits intellectual growth in any given subject. Therefore, if girls are not encouraged to enter STEM fields from an early age, their likelihood of pursuing or succeeding in those fields is much lower.

According to Conant, she has always enjoyed science. In addition to her parents encouraging her to pursue her interests from an early age, she has had other influences as well.

“Growing up, I went to a lot of science-focused camps over the summer. They helped me get more involved in science because I wasn’t doing it just in school and was able to see the fun side of it,” Conant said. “I love doing experiments and learning what happens at a closer level. I think that by seeing those cool reactions, I found myself wanting to know how that happened.”

One of the reasons girls are discouraged from entering STEM fields is because of preconceived stereotypes

Cultural Norms

According to Conant, another reason that explains why girls tend to take less advanced science classes is because of peer pressure to enroll in similar classes as her female friends. Ultimately, Conant has looked beyond this pressure and is pursuing what she enjoys.

“Don’t listen to what your friends are taking because I find that a lot of my friends are taking more writing-focused classes and a little piece of me thought ‘I want to be in classes with them,’ but really it came down to ‘What do I want to do for the entire school year?’” Conant said.

Conant believes that even though Marin has a more open mindset regarding females in the workplace and in education, she feels that some people are still surprised that she is taking so many advanced science classes.

“I can tell that some people are shocked that I am a girl taking these classes. I think that if it is something you are interested in, then you should do it because it’s really about what you want and not what they want,” Conant said.

Jessica Crabtree, an AP Calculus AB and Honors Precalculus teacher, echoed similar thoughts as Conant. According to Crabtree, some of the Redwood female math teachers have reached out to girls in order to encourage them to take honors or AP math classes, which has had positive results. She believes that in large part it is our culture that restricts females from entering STEM fields.

“I think part of the problem is how we are raised as females is that we are rewarded for being quiet and for following all of the rules. We are told that in our culture, since the time we were little, that boys are energetic and a little rambunctious. The hidden message that girls get taught is that you are to be sweet, docile and cooperative,” Crabtree said. “Since the STEM fields have been dominated by men for so long, these values we are teaching girls are telling them to continue to not pursue STEM.”

Crabtree said that if women stray away from this expectation, they are criticized by society. However, women need to break the stereotype in a male-dominated setting if they want to be successful in STEM.

“Our culture teaches women the direct opposite of what they need to be in order to be a leader or in STEM,” Crabtree said. “If you change to be in that type of role, you will get slammed with the idea that you are mean and people are afraid of you. It really is that women who are confident, outspoken and smart receive constant negative messages everywhere they go.”

Nevertheless, for girls to be successful in STEM fields, they have to overcome these burdens placed on them by societal standards, which can be a difficult task in our current culture, according to Crabtree.

“Culturally, we teach girls not to be risk-takers. When women are in a STEM classroom, where in order to get what you need, you need to be willing to be bold, ask questions, not be afraid, put yourself out there, take risks and willing to be wrong, they have to learn from their mistakes as much as learning from their successes and be willing to accept failure,” Crabtree said.

At Redwood, the ratio of girls to boys in advanced STEM classes is 2:3

The Solutions

There have been some successful initiatives encouraging more girls to pursue these fields. Many have targeted younger girls because if people are encouraged to do or enjoy something earlier in their life, they are more likely to pursue it. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, experiences in the first eight years of a person’s life shape the foundation for that individual’s brain. In addition, those eight years are some of the most crucial in developing interests and aspirations.

Virginia Tusher, a researcher in biotechnology, an interdisciplinary life sciences council member at Stanford University and board member for the San Francisco Academy of Sciences, has targeted bridging the gender gap in STEM fields by implementing an afterschool STEM program that encourages younger girls to join those fields at Bel Aire Elementary School.

“The goal of the program was to address the problem of the lack of time given by teachers, who have to cover so much, to science, especially since it wasn’t tested on. This program was so important because it’s still a challenge to get people to understand what doing science is really about,” Tusher said.

According to Tusher, a group of mothers received training from the Academy of Sciences on how to teach the afterschool program.

“Science is boring when you learn about it in textbooks. When I heard about this program that the Academy of Sciences had put together, just to do outdoors, hands-on and exploratory science, it wasn’t like we needed to hit this standard or that standard,” Tusher said. “It wasn’t about the tests, but learning for the joy of it. The purpose was to give students more opportunity for science instruction in a fun and hands-on way.”

According to the Academy of Sciences, after going through the program there was a 6 percent increase of participants feeling that science is fun, 10 percent increase of being interested in the natural world and 18 percent increase of “feeling like a scientist.” In addition, 81 percent of participants said they were eager to learn more about science and 75 percent felt more confident in their science skills.

In her experience in STEM, Tusher has faced different challenges but ultimately prevailed because of her enjoyment of science and influences early in her life.

“I just loved science from an early age. I had an aunt that was a physics professor and she was a large influence on me to pursue science because I am a big believer in role models,” Tusher said. “However, there were only four women in my department when I pursued mechanical engineering in college, so the vast majority were guys. I actually found it exhilarating though because you have to spin the situation and accept that challenge.”

Ultimately, according to Tusher, girls need to be encouraged to enter these fields and look past stereotypes. From an early age, there are common conceptions for what is right for males and females, but entering a new era, previously preconceived notions are constantly being broken.

Women are challenging the norm at unprecedented rates. They are outnumbering men in college, and according to the United States Department of Labor, women are entering the workspace at higher rates than ever before. It is evident that our culture is shifting to educating more women and having them actively participate in our society.

By concentrating on motivating women towards STEM fields from an early age and helping them understand its acceptability, there could potentially be a rise in women entering those fields. According to The New York Times, children start forming stereotypes as early as four-years-old. Based on different studies, children are heavily influenced by the toys they are surrounded by and these toys can help shape their future decisions. This means that helping promote women in STEM fields could be as easy as surrounding girls with STEM-related toys such as rocket ships, robots and telescopes at a young age.

While small shifts in environment and mindset from an early age is effective in helping more women pursue STEM fields, explicitly emphasizing that more women need to enter STEM is actually exacerbating the problem more than helping. A Georgetown study found that the reasoning behind this is because explicitly stating the problem reinforces that STEM is dominated by men.

The scope of the problem can also be over-exaggerated, making some of the efforts to encourage women to enter these fields, some of which have had the opposite effect, unnecessary. As a whole, while some science fields such as computer science, biophysics and physics are male-dominated, neurobiology and environmental biology are female-dominated.

Advanced science classes at Redwood hold true to this standard. While Honors Physics and AP Computer Science are heavily populated by boys, other science classes are primarily girls. In fact, girls compose 68 percent of AP Biology, 53 percent of Honors Biomedical Science and 50 percent of AP Chemistry.

So while there is an evident lack of women entering STEM, based on the Georgetown study’s conclusions, society has to be careful in encouraging women to join STEM in a way that does not make the task daunting or exaggerates the problem. By exposing girls to STEM-related topics and objects at a young age, we allow them to look past the stereotype and feel more confident in pursuing those fields without feeling the pressure of entering male-dominated professions.

Conant believes that girls ultimately just need to follow their interests.

“If girls are interested in [STEM classes], take them. High school is a time where you get to explore [your interests]. I’m taking Honors Biomed and that may influence my decision to go into medicine,” Conant said. “They should take these classes because it can change your mind whether you want to go into that field or not, and even if you decide you don’t you still are going to learn something cool.”

While less girls at Redwood take advanced STEM classes than boys, girls outnumber boys in many advanced classes
Created By
Drake Goodman
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Photos by Drake Goodman

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