How to Get More Women into S.T.E.M Fields

54% of the students attending MIT are male. While this ratio does not seem all that bad, it is much worse at the college I attend, Georgia Tech, where 65% of its students are male. Yet this male dominated trend in college attendance can’t present at all colleges: according to Forbes, millions more women are currently enrolled in college. And yet universities with strong science and engineering programs are consistently dominated by men. So how do we reverse this trend and bring millions more women into the exciting (and well paying) fields of STEM? After discussing this issue with the women in my family who hold STEM degrees (my sister: a PA, and my mother: an engineering professor) we came up with a possible solution: actively work to remove 20th century gender roles by promoting female role models in STEM.

Whether we care to admit it or not, gender roles still play a huge part in how American children are raised. Although we have moved away from the stereotypical 20th century notion of a perfect family, such as Ralph and Alice from “The Honeymooners” or Ricky and Lucy from “I Love Lucy,” many gender stereotypes that were firmly rooted in that era are still very much present today. The notion of the chivalrous gentleman and the courteous lady, for instance, can manifest itself in interactions such as the gentleman holding a door open for the lady, or perhaps even pulling out a chair for her. If the early 20th century was a society where either gender could be a ‘gentleman,’ these interactions would simply be polite. Yet it was not. The 20th century had established roles for the ways men and women should interact with each other; interactions which promote a society in which women see themselves as dependent on men. They are less extreme examples of the “perfect” 20th century family: one where the woman is completely dependent upon the man. I think behavior and culture carried over from the early 20th century, a time before women’s suffrage in the Western world, can explain every gender inequality in America today.

Writing this essay, I am reminded of a story that my mother told me when I was deciding on what major I should pursue. During her first year of high school her entire class took a career aptitude test. After the test, each of her class mates discussed their test scores with a counselor who recommended a career to them. When it was my mother’s turn the councilor simply said: “I don’t know what to tell you.” According to the test, my mother was supposed to be a mechanical engineer with a 98% match. And yet she was a woman. Needless to say, if she was a man her councilor would have advised her to become a mechanical engineer. Why else was that profession on the test? This kind of stigma, one where becoming an engineer or doctor is simply not seen as an option for women, is why there are so many more men with STEM degrees than women, and it still exists today. To give a simple example, you may have heard the riddle about a father and his son getting in a car accident. When they arrive at the hospital to treat the son’s wounds the doctor says: “I can’t operate on this boy, he is my son.” How is this possible? The answer, of course, is that the doctor is the boy’s mother. The fact that this “riddle” even exists displays our inherent stereotyping of a doctor always being male. When someone mentions a doctor I picture Dr. Phil, or George Clooney in a white coat, but not a woman. Why is this? The answer likely has to do with the reason why my mother’s councilor did not immediately tell her to be a mechanical engineer: it is the stigma against female doctors and engineers established by 20th century gender roles. If women are dependent upon men, why would they need to involve themselves with anything as difficult as medicine or engineering? Unfortunately, many of our role models and the people we stereotype as doctors and engineers (George Clooney in a white coat) come from this same time period. And they are all men.

The answer to the question of how we get more women in STEM fields is now obvious: make new role models. I want my niece to be able to see a bad-ass female astronaut land on the moon for the first time in more than 45 years, or to hear a ground-breaking discovery in physics announced by the woman who made it. Even though there are women astronauts, none of them have been to the moon, and many women undoubtedly remain uncredited for their contributions to science. The generic scientists and experts in movies are still typecast as men, and the films that establish our role models in STEM, such as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” or Mark Watney in “The Martian,” are still very much male. For more women to pursue STEM degrees, little girls like my niece need to encounter female scientists, engineers, and doctors in popular media in the same way she encounters men. Only with more popularized female role models in STEM can we finally remove the established gender roles that are keeping women out. Although it is unlikely that we will get a remake of “The Martian” featuring Julia Roberts, I have confidence in the future of women in science, engineering, and medicine.

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