Understanding Gender Equality and the Trends of Women Leaving Science, Technology, Engineering or Math

Sep 27, 2018 · 6 min read

Women in STEM;

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I grew up in an Indian household where my oldest sister and mother studied science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Both, however, left STEM for a non-STEM career immediately after they graduated from university for different reasons. Although I’ve always been curious about their reasons for leaving STEM, I had assumed it was the social and societal status quo. However, things changed over years while in university as this curiosity evolved into a strong urge to investigate gender roles and norms that are prevalent in our society as I saw my acquaintances and friends drop out of STEM track at university.

The number of women studying science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) is growing but yet men continue to outnumber them as we move to the higher level of these professions. While the number of girls and boys taking STEM classes throughout the primary and secondary schooling is roughly equal in numbers, the number of women compared to number of men who further pursue STEM majors is noticeably less. After high school, representation of women in science and engineering continuously decline at graduate level as well as they further transition to job environment. NYU Tandon School of Engineering’s statistics on enrollment by gender states that of the total enrolled, 76 percent are men and only 24 percent are women, which further illustrates the lack of women in the field of engineering and math. Statistics published by the US state department also highlight that out of the total number of women who begin with STEM major, around 32 percent dropped out of college and around 42 percent switched major to a non-STEM major, against only 20 percent of men who switched major to a non-STEM major.

Although my initial assumption was that the social and societal construct has led women to leave the field of STEM during their course of education in college, or even after they had graduated from college, it later changed and developed as I further talked to people and researched more on this topic. My first point of access was approaching my mom to understand her reasons for switching into non-STEM career after having a very strong academic foundation in STEM. My mom was in the top of her graduating class studying Biotechnology about 30 years ago, but couldn’t pursue it further due to lack of opportunity available to women, unequal wages for women like her in STEM, and societal pressure. After completing her masters in Biotechnology, she got married and under social and societal pressures decided to become a full time homemaker for a few years. Once she tried going back to further research in her field she faced a lack of opportunity available to her unlike her male counterparts. She argues that although there were some opportunities available for her, these opportunities had major wage differences in comparison to her male colleagues that led her to switch to a non-STEM career where the wage difference and gender inequality was significantly smaller. Franzway, Sharp, Mills, and Gill support this argument in their work Engineering Ignorance stating, “the pathway to such high-level positions are discursively and materially complex” (Franzway et al., 90), and by discussing “gendered assumptions by identifying family as a site of complex gender relationships of power as domination, resistance, alliances, and pleasures” where the female counterpart is generally expected to makes personal and career sacrifices for the sake of the family.

It is also important to understand that the problem is not for women to enter STEM but to remain in these fields. These interventions have been characterized as efforts that focus on “deficiency model” which is explained by the Karen Tonso in her book On the Outskirts of Engineering, which locates the issue within the women themselves and their socialization to specific gender roles, has been shown to offer and inadequate account of what is happening when women attempt to enter engineering professions. In this deficiency model, it is assumed that women lack sometime that can include ability, experience, interest, inspiration, motivation, etc., that they require in order to succeed in STEM. Although this deficit can be reduced by providing well designed intervention programs such as camps, internships, mentoring programs, social opportunities, etc., it comes under scrutiny since it mostly addresses the symptoms of the problems (the Band-Aid approach) instead of tackling the roots of the problem.

Furthermore, Tonso’s book supports the inescapable truth that even “transformative curricular reform” will not be enough to undo the marginalization of women that results from an overarching ideological equation between masculinity and the privilege that comes along with it. She names the gender-status ideology directly by showing how engineering identity plays out across a span of years through overt aggression towards women by their men counterpart, which can be observed in senior engineering students and not the first-year students (Campbell). It is implied that men learn this hostility through adaption and assimilation of the engineering culture.

Franzway et al. (2009) interviewed several male and female engineers to have a deeper understanding of the issue, and to their surprise both men and women converted their not knowing, or ignorance, into commonplace explanations. It is important to realize that this ignorance plays a vital role in understanding the problem because “Ignorance, like knowledge, is interrelated with power” (96) and gender politics. In order to find solution to the problem, we need to treat the root cause of this ignorance, which can be mostly done through the means of education.

While many scholars believe that only social and cultural factors play a major role in such a decline, Catharine Hill et al. in their research paper Why So Few argue that persistent gender gaps in cognitive skills found in the area of spatial skills, “specifically on measures of mental rotation, in one of the important sections where men beat women by a major margin. These 3-D spatial visualization skills are important for success in STEM, which men usually gain early in childhood by playing Lego and other constructive games, which women do not usually have access to in childhood due to cultural norms. Women, however, can develop these cognitive skills through training and education at early childhood and even at a stage of adulthood since there both male and females have same brain that is trained differently.

In addition, Hill et al, also argue that out that a few decades ago there were “13 boys for every girl who scored above 700 on the SAT math exam at age 13; today the ration has shrunk to about 3:1”, implying that this increase in number of girls identified as “mathematically gifted” (Hill et al., XIV) suggests that education makes a major difference in achieving the higher level of proficiency in math and science.

In a nutshell, it is important that we understand the social, cultural as well as the cognitive factors that play an important role in gender equality in STEM and also change the common trends of women leaving STEM. Education of such understandings and propagating knowledge and training appropriately can help lessen the ratio of men to women in the field of STEM and bridge this gender gap. Today’s gender disproportionality is not a sign of women’s inability to compete in the academic world; it is, on the contrary, a testament to the courage and perseverance of those women who defied the odds to succeed in fields in which many expected them to fail.


Work Cited:

Franz way, Suzanne et al. “Engineering Ignorance: The Problem of Gender Equity in Engineering”. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 30.1 (2009): 89–106. Web.

Hill, Catherine et al. Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Washington, DC. 2009, Web.

Tonso, Karen L. On the Outskirts of Engineering: Learning Identity, Gender and Power via Engineering Practice. Rotterdam: Sense, 2007, Print

Rewant Prakash

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I like to ideate and create immersive experiences; interested in tech for social impact and mental health. checkout my work at rewantprakash.com

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