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Women in STEM

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Aug 31, 2016

The typical cliché goes that men and women are from two different planets, different as night and day with one completing all the rough, hard work while the other is satisfied staying quiet and looking pretty. This age old stereotype is subconsciously ingrained into society and may be the reason why more men typically dominate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields.  

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Recently, much of society largely believed that the brain chemistry of men and women were different, possibly allowing for men to perform better in STEM fields and women to excel in liberal arts. Scientific American reported that “Male brains have more connections within hemispheres to optimize motor skills, whereas female brains are more connected between hemispheres to combine analytical and intuitive thinking.” 

However, a new study called “Sex Beyond the Genitalia: The Human Brain Mosaic” finally proves the outdated stereotype wrong. Fourteen scientists from Tel-Aviv University conducted research on more than 1,400 brains to investigate if there is in fact a difference between male and female brains.

According to their study, the researchers focused on patterns of brain connectivity, grey matter, and white matter all of which have previously been suspected to connect with biological sex. They hypothesized that if there were a real, recognizable difference between male and female brains, they would notice a strong difference in these features between male and female brains.

Their findings showed that there is no such thing as a male or female brain because they did not see a clear separation of the features between men and women. In fact, they discovered that almost all the brains examined shared both the “masculine” and “feminine” features and that it was extremely rare for a brain to show only masculine or feminine features. Some brains showed more masculine or more feminine features but still had elements of both, suggesting a spectrum ranging from more male to more female.  

This study leaves little room for the stereotype that men are typically better at math and women are typically better at language, so then why is there such a small number of women studying STEM? 

According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, “While women receive over half of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the biological sciences, they receive far fewer in the computer sciences (18.2%), engineering (19.2%), physics (19.1%), and mathematics and statistics (43.1%). 

The National Girls Collaborative Project explains, “Female scientists and engineers are concentrated in different occupations than are men, with relatively high shares of women in the social sciences (58%) and biological and medical sciences (48%) and relatively low shares in engineering (13%) and computer and mathematical sciences (25%).” 

Members of the Psychology Department of the University of Massachusetts Amherst concluded that the reason less women study STEM is due to gender bias in early socialization in their research, “STEMing the Tide.” Although brain chemistry was a clever excuse, the problem was society all along. 

Reshma Saujani, the CEO of Girls Who Code, completed a TED Talk called, Teach girls bravery, not perfection, where she explains this socialization. She says, “Most girls are taught to avoid risk and failure. We’re taught to smile pretty, play it safe, get all A’s. Boys, on the other hand, are taught to play rough, swing high, crawl to the top of the monkey bars and then just jump off headfirst…In other words, we’re raising our girls to be perfect, and we’re raising our boys to be brave.” 

Saujani further explains that one HP statistic says men will apply for a job if they meet only 60% of the requirements while women will only apply if they meet 100% of the requirements. She says of the statistic, “I think it’s evidence that women have been socialized to aspire to perfection, and they’re overly cautious.” 

Even when women do decide to pursue a STEM career, many of them still have to face an onslaught of stereotypes. 

GREEN alumna and Civil Engineering major/Construction Management minor at Colorado State University, Sierra Watson shares her perspective as a woman in STEM. She says her biggest challenge is finding friends who want to learn with her.

She says, “Engineers have a big problem assuming that everyone around them is smart enough and everyone understands what’s going on. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that 90% of that class doesn’t know what you think they do. And NONE of them are asking enough questions. So as being the only girl who ever pipes up to say, ‘Hey, this doesn’t make sense,” this can tend to lower your self-esteem because engineers also tend to act like they didn’t need to ask. As a girl, I have decided that I don’t care how weird or dumb I might seem. As a girl I just have the guts to stand up and say, ‘What’s going on?’ and in the end, because of piping in, I have learned how to make more friends who learn more like I do.”

Watson prides herself on doing what she loves and advocates that every woman should study what she loves. One stereotype that she faces is that everyone thinks of her as smarter because she studies STEM. She admits, “I can regretfully say, every women who hears that I am in a STEM program acts as though I am more high and mighty than she in that moment. I just hope that women understand that you are no less of a woman as a housewife or as a secretary; you are only less of a woman if you aren’t doing what you really want to do with your life…If you can persevere, and you like the subject, you will find a way to figure it out!” 

Another GREEN alumna Ella Chalkley who is a Mechanical Engineer at Virginia Tech reveals, “People might expect you to be less willing to get your hands dirty in hands-on situations, or less willing to participate in class because you feel insecure as a minority. Then there are the select few that even without spoken words make it obvious that they think differently (less) of you because you are a woman. I didn’t spend any time trying to change minds of the “select few”-these people aren’t worth time or energy. I have never hesitated to speak up and ask questions in class, and usually volunteered to go first in our few hands-on classes.” 

Despite the obvious challenges of being a woman in STEM, Chalkley turns the tables and mentions the flipside to gender discrimination. She says, “In many cases, you will stand out just because you are a woman. This is not something that should be taken advantage of or even be expected, but might inherently work to your benefit. The fact of the matter is that your professors are going to remember your face and your name much more easily when you are one of three women in an eighty-person class… This ‘flip-side’ is still at its core a result of negative discrimination and can often times be just as frustrating to witness in action, but when taken at face value can be positive and, hopefully helpful with professional networking.” 

Another GREEN Alumna, Kelly Jenkins, is a Mechanical Engineering graduate with an energy concentration at Rutgers University and is working toward a PhD in Nuclear Engineering at Pennsylvania State University. Jenkins believes that the greatest challenge a woman could face in STEM is “the competitiveness and lack of support from other women in STEM. Every woman suffers through discrimination in the field, so there are times that the discrimination is considered ‘paying your dues.’”

Jenkins encourages supporting fellow women instead of tearing others down by saying, “Every day, women of ALL ages are being told that they can’t do something. Breaking stereotypes means that we need to empower women by redefining gender roles and not worrying about the opinions of others! Whether a woman wants to be an artist, a secretary, an entrepreneur, a waitress, a chef, a stay-at-home mom, a police officer, a scientist, or an engineer, it is her decision. I was told more times than I care to count, that I could not pursue a technical degree, let alone two, and forget going for a PhD! If there’s anything I could share to everyone (male or female) it is do what inspires you, and forget what the naysayers say!”

Océane Boulais, GREEN alumna and Electrical Engineering student at Florida Atlantic University, shares, “I am currently working on a stereotype that most women struggle with every day: that we must be over qualified if we want something (i.e. pay-raise, a new position). This stereotype is rooted in a lack of self-confidence passed unto us by society.” 

Clearly, ending stereotypes and the way young girls are socialized is necessary, affective immediately…but what’s the first step?

Boulais explains, “As much as I love interest groups and societies that focus on getting women in the industry and providing them special treatment through scholarships, fellowships, and internships – that is only the first step. Those opportunities are fantastic, but at the end of the day, they are crutches. The glass ceiling is cracking, but we are far from obliterating our societal limitations if we don’t continue pursuing those spots on the Executive Board tables at the same pace as everyone else.” 

After listening to her TED Talk, Saujani calls on her audience the way I will do now, “And so I need each of you to tell every young woman you know—your sister, your niece, your employee, your colleague—to be comfortable with imperfection, because when we teach girls to be imperfect, and we help them leverage it, we will build a movement of young women who are brave and who will build a better world for themselves for each and everyone of us.”

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