Ladies to the Lab: Why We Need More Women in STEM

By Sara Mortensen & Kevin Carriere

This piece is a part of the Harry Potter Alliance’s series for A World Without Hermione, a campaign exploring gender inequity by imagining what the wizard world look like without Hermione Granger. To find out more about the Harry Potter Alliance and A World Without Hermione, visit thehpalliance.org/withouthermione.

“Five more points from Gryffindor for being an insufferable know- it-all.”
Hermione went very red, put down her hand, and stared at the floor with her eyes full of tears.
-Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

What’s the Problem?

Hermione’s experience is one that girls face all the time, in schools all over the world. This fall, the Harry Potter Alliance is highlighting the role gender inequity plays in removing girls from the classroom through the campaign, A World Without Hermione. What would the wizarding world look like if Hermione never had the chance to go to Hogwarts or if comments like the one above discouraged her from becoming a full-fledged witch? What would our world look like if would-be female scientists and engineers never got the chance to get their own educations? Unfortunately, the statistics surrounding women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) are so grim that we don’t have to do much imagining on that last point.

In the United States, even though women account for 60% of total college graduates, only 35% graduate with degrees in STEM. Further, only 18% of those degrees are in computer sciences or engineering. “In 2013, only four countries in Europe could claim to have at least 15 percent of all STEM graduates be female, while in Chile in 2014, it was 20 percent.” Not only are these stats not getting better, but the statistics surrounding women in STEM actually got worse in the ten-year period from 2004 to 2014 for many countries worldwide.

A graph showing the percentage of female graduates from tertiary degrees in selected subjects. In the USA, Chile, South Africa, Turkey, Indonesia, and India the lowest percentages of degrees are consistently in the fields of Engineering, Manufacturing and Construction, Science, and Technology. Source: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/03/women-are-still-under-represented-in-science-maths-and-engineering-heres-what-we-can-do

Not only are women less like to obtain degrees in the STEM field, but there is an even smaller percentage of women with STEM degrees who go on to pursue STEM careers. Given the recent conversation surrounding a Google employee who said “the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership” it’s not difficult to understand why. In many cases, the STEM field is still not a comfortable or safe space for women.

All of these statistics are even worse when you specifically look at women of color. This graph from the National Science Foundation of the gender and racial breakdown of science and engineering jobs in the US in 2013 reveals that while White women hold 20% of science and engineering jobs, this number drops drastically to 5% for Asian women, and 2% for both Black and Hispanic women.

A pie chart showing the gender and racial breakdown of science and engineering jobs in the US in 2013. Source: National Science Foundation

All of these statistics are even more troublesome when you consider the fact that 74% of middle school aged girls express an interest in STEM courses. Why the discrepancy? What happens in those critical years that discourages girls from pursuing STEM educations and careers? And what can we do to make sure this doesn’t continue?

Why Is This Happening?

We can look at the concept of “math anxiety” to try and understand some of the ways in which girls are socialized out of their interest in STEM. Have you ever passed the receipt to a friend for tipping, because even just the prospect of doing math makes you feel nauseous? Have you ever looked at a math problem and just felt sick? You might suffer from math anxiety! Math anxiety is defined as “an unpleasant emotional response to math or the prospect of doing math and is more common in women than in men.” Research has shown that for highly math anxious individuals, regions of their brain associated with both threat and pain increase in activation when told they will be performing a math related task in the future. But — it turns out, math anxiety isn’t a complete genetic problem — it’s a social one as well.

We can see the effects of math anxiety extremely early on. Research has shown that while all students start their elementary education with zero gendered beliefs about math at the beginning of the school year, exposing female students to a female elementary school teacher who had math anxiety caused girls, not boys, to endorse the idea that “boys are better at math, girls are better at reading.” Those female students then showed higher signs of math anxiety themselves. This was not the case for teachers who did not have high levels of math anxiety — no differences emerged. In addition, the higher girls rated this idea, the lower their math achievement skills were. Lower math achievement skills have been associated with lower interest in STEM careers. In a slightly sobering study, researchers found that children learned fewer math skills in first and second grade when they had math-anxious parents, but only when those math-anxious parents helped them with their homework on a regular basis.

In effect, we see math anxiety in individuals — especially women — because they were taught that boys are better at math. This false norm is taught by teachers who were taught this same false stereotype, perpetuating the myth. In actuality, when women are told that prior research had shown no gender differences on a math test, they performed equal to their male counterparts. Yet, when told this test had shown significant gender differences, women who took the test performed worse than their male counterparts.

So — we have a problem. Girls are being taught from a young age that boys are better at math, and girls are better at reading. However, there is no evidence in children to suggest this is actually the case. If they are taught this, they are more likely than boys to develop math anxiety, making them worse at math achievement, which in turn reduces the likelihood to join STEM related fields in the future.

Why Should You Care?

The concept of “math anxiety” helps to explain one way in which girls are socialized out of interest in STEM. In general, our society still adheres to and reinforces gender roles, and this is just one way that social norms and stereotypes negatively affects girls. Why does all of this matter, though?

Well, if you care about equality, then that should be reason enough. In short, women simply deserve equal opportunity when it comes to STEM education. If you need more reasons, there is preliminary research suggesting that “correcting gender segregation in employment and in entrepreneurship could increase aggregate productivity globally by as much as 16 percent.” So, gender equality in STEM can also be beneficial for our economy.

We need to normalize the fact that women are working in STEM, that they belong there, and that we want more of them. When Isis Wegner, an engineer at OneLogin, received sexist comments online after appearing in a recruitment ad, she started the hashtag #ILookLikeAnEngineer to highlight the diversity of women that are working in STEM. While the results of the hashtag is certainly empowering, the fact that it was needed at all is sobering.

A photo of Isis Wegner holding a sign that says “I help build enterprise software. #ILookLikeAnEngineer” Source: https://thecoffeelicious.com/you-may-have-seen-my-face-on-bart-8b9561003e0f

What Can We Do About It?

  1. Foster Positive Attitudes About Math

If you’re worried about math anxiety, don’t fear! There are many ways we can improve our own math anxiety. Whether that is expressing your feelings prior to a math test, using therapeutic methods such as slowly exposing yourself to more and more math problems, or simply receiving more home-based training resources to actively engage positively with your child, there is something to be said for being open about our fears and being willing to face the boggart that is algebra.

2. Challenge the Stereotype

Colleges are looking at new ways to improve and educate their students. A recent NPR article highlighted the case of Harvey Mudd College, with the new female President Maria Klawe. By challenging the stereotype of what a “computer geek” was, and working towards creating a more collaborative environment of coding, Harvey Mudd College saw a jump from 10 percent of their computer science majors being women to 40 percent and higher.

Further, research has shown that female students who take courses in calculus taught by female faculty members (in comparison to male faculty) felt more confident in their math abilities and increased their intentions to pursue STEM-related fields. One way to challenge the stereotype is to actively introduce “non-stereotypical” role models, such as a female calculus professor, to girls as they are pursuing and gaining interest in STEM education.

You can also personally work on challenging the stereotype for yourself by learning about the history of women in science who have been forgotten or ignored by history. The book Women in Science by Rachel Ignotofsky is a great place to start.

3. Support Organizations Working With Women in STEM

There are numerous organizations doing some truly amazing work surrounding women in STEM: National Girls Collaborative Project, Women in Engineering Proactive Network, Million Women Mentors, and Scientista are just a few.

4. Change the Policies

Gender equality has educational benefits to our future daughters as well. Countries with higher gender equality exhibit no differences in the mathematical achievements between genders, while countries with larger gaps in economic participation, educational attainment, political empowerment, and health between genders show an increased disparity between women and men.

In the House, there is Proposal 115 H.R. 3316: “Code Like A Girl Act” (Sponsor: Jackey Rosen, D-NV) which has the goal to increase National Science Foundation support for women in computer science and other STEM activities, and the House Bill 115 H.R. 3119: “21st Century STEM for Girls and Underrepresented Minorities Act” (Sponsor: Joyce Beatty, D-OH) which focuses more on the local educational administrations to encourage women and minorities to engage with STEM fields. Many bills from prior sessions have not moved past their committees, but should be noted to include 114 H.R. 2762: Getting Involved in Researching, Learning, and Studying of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Act; GIRLS STEM Act (Sponsor: Jerry McNerney, D-CA). Feel free to email your Congresspersons to encourage them to support this bill, or find co-sponsorship to link it as a proposed sister bill within the Senate!

A graphic with the quote “Women are intelligent, capable, and many of them desperately want to be involved in STEM. If we allow them that, our world will undoubtedly be a better place as well.”

Looking to the Future

The wizarding world is undeniably a better place because Hermione, Luna, Ginny, Parvati, Angelina, and many other witches had the opportunity to attend Hogwarts. Although it may seem bleak at the moment, the future for women in STEM in our world can be positive if we work together to support women, change the stereotype, and implement policies that afford women the same opportunities as men in the STEM field. Women are intelligent, capable, and many of them desperately want to be involved in STEM. If we allow them that, our world will undoubtedly be a better place as well.

Sara Mortensen is a Ravenpuff who is passionate about feminism, science, and literacy. She is the volunteer Campaigns Manager for the Harry Potter Alliance. In her muggle life, she works at Words Alive as their Office & Communication Coordinator.

Kevin Carriere is a Ravenclaw who supports free speech, science, and LGBTQI rights. He is a research analyst for the Harry Potter Alliance. When he’s not out hunting boggarts (data or otherwise), he is a PhD student at Georgetown University studying perceived threat and their relations with human right violations.