So there are fewer women in STEM…. who cares?

Marissa Orr
Mar 27 · 2 min read

In a recent article for Fortune Magazine, Katie Couric explains that women are grossly underrepresented in STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Mathematics) and that gender biases and cultural conditioning are to blame. As one obvious example, she points to the 1992 talking Barbie who uttered the phrase, “math is tough.” But Couric also cautions us that there are many less obvious examples which are no less harmful, such as the way kids internalize gender roles at home; mom always does the dishes while dad’s always the one to help with math homework.

We’re told that such cultural conditioning and biases result in the gender imbalance across scientific disciplines and differences in male and female confidence:

  • 30% of the world’s researchers are women
  • Two out of three women are not confident in their knowledge of science

It’s the same stuff we’ve been hearing about women in STEM for years; nothing new or seemingly controversial. But I’d like to point out a few stats that were NOT included in the article.

  • Women outnumber men three to one in doctoral degrees in psychology(source)
  • Women earn over 80% of all bachelor’s degrees in Behavioral and Social sciences (source)
  • Men only constitute 9 percent of the nursing profession in the U.S. (source)
  • Only 12.9 percent of teachers in the U.S. are men (source)
  • Men make up a mere 8.1 percent of professional childcare workers (source)

These stats pose some interesting questions.

  • If culture and gender biases are to blame for women earning only 21% of engineering degrees (source), how are they so easily able to overcome such forces and dominate psychology and the social sciences, where they hold 63% of all degrees (source)?
  • What are the forces at play which can explain the lack of men in the social sciences?Are they victims of cultural stereotypes and biases too?
  • Why aren’t we trying to close the gender gap in the social sciences, or in nursing, or teaching?

People argue that STEM careers are the future of the economy, and it’s critical for women to participate. But that’s a value judgment. It reflects the weight our culture puts on money; it’s not a reflection of what role is more valuable to society. Is an engineer inherently more worthy than a nurse?

Furthermore, if women were to leave the nursing profession in favor of becoming engineers, who would fill the vacancies? Would we suddenly reverse our national campaigns and recruit men to join the nursing workforce? If they were disinterested in doing so, would we try to convince them that they’ve simply been victimized by culture?

The public discourse on STEM is another example of our tendency to blame women for “failing” to adopt the same interests, dreams, and careers as men. We declare it a defect that must be fixed. The reverse — fewer men interested or participating in female-dominated fields — is never seen as a deficiency. We accept it as is.

Gender equality doesn’t mean men and women have to be the same. After all, isn’t the whole point of diversity to embrace, if not celebrate, our differences?

Marissa Orr

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Ex Googler. Ex Facebooker. Truth teller. My book, Lean Out, is now available online and in stores https://amzn.to/2EcUjLP