Despite a growing push by legislators and progressive social groups for gender equality in education, women remain grossly underrepresented in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). A recent article published in Science estimates that this imbalance will last for another century.
Women scientists weighed in on the topic, describing the effect of the imbalance on their scientific education as evident but rarely, if at all, negative.
In the article, “The High Cost of Being a Woman,” Seirian Sumner and Nathalie Pettorelli highlight that the imbalance is larger at high levels of education than it is in high school science classes. At colleges in the UK, for example, 60 percent of biology undergrads are women, but females only represent 12 percent of biology professors.
Given women’s tendency to “excel in communication, multitasking and creative thinking,” Sumner and Pettorelly suggest that women are predisposed to scientific success. Unfortunately, they face a more difficult road to success in their respective fields. The article reasons that women are less likely to be willing to invest the immediate post-doctorate years in the highly stressful, highly uncertain lifestyle of a scientist finishing her education. For many women, the decision to work through small-contract employment to an established position in the field could directly result in foregoing having children.
Women feel a certain degree of pressure to view the careers of their husbands as a higher priority than their own, upholding a social norm that is firmly engrained in Western professional society. The first step towards equality, in the eyes of Sumner and Pettorelli, is the development of a more positive image of the female scientist that would help to create a more balanced view of gender roles for coming generations.
At Stanford, women in the sciences acknowledge a significant imbalance, but are reluctant to label it as strictly negative. Eva Silverstein, Professor of Physics, recounted in an interview with the Review that she did not feel any serious effects of the imbalance during her scientific education. She did, however, recognize the imbalance as a “serious issue.”
“I think it is likely that the lower number stems from the lingering effects of the long period in which women were largely confined to traditional roles,” speculated Silverstein. “In the 1970s many private universities still did not admit women or were just starting to do so. The psychology of scientists plays a larger role than you might think in helping or hindering them, In science we are all inspired by many amazing people; their internal plumbing is irrelevant,” she added.
In closing, Ms. Silverstein stated her hope that the “safeguards in place to help prevent prejudice in hiring” will become “moot after sufficiently many generations.”
“I feel there is a certain amount of respect for women who are taking these classes,” Claire Négiar ’14, a Computer Science student at Stanford explained, adding that when she reveals that she is a computer scientist, reactions tend to involve congratulations more than surprise.
“I guess it’s true that I feel like my ‘potential’ is sometimes underestimated, but that changes as soon as we get to talking about assignments,” she said with regards to competition with male students, “ultimately, everyone has to complete the same assignments and reach the same benchmarks to turn these in.”
She expressed confidence rather than intimidation with regard to the job market, citing the common situation in which small companies who are comprised almost entirely of men search for women to add to their teams.
In reference to an internet start up with 90 employees and one woman on the technical team, Claire expressed confidence: “If this company wants to thrive, they are going to need more women engineers. And that’s where I can come into play.” Finally, Claire attributed the imbalance to be related to the reputation for computer scientists to work in non-social environments, which she thinks might not appeal to some women otherwise interested in the field.
Alyson Yamada ’15, president of the Stanford Society of Women Engineers (SWE), expressed opposition to the suggestion that family life and a career in science need to conflict.
“Make the transition to family life when the time comes,” said Yamada, “but finding real purpose in your time at Stanford is too great an opportunity to miss out on.”
She attributed the imbalance to “stereotypes generated at a young age” that hold boys as more naturally mathematical than girls. Yamada said she “loved math as a young child, and was encouraged to learn more about what [she] enjoyed studying,” leading to her path as an engineering major.
The SWE brings Bay Area students in grades K-12 to Stanford to encourage both boys and girls to pursue their interests in the technical fields.
The attitudes of Stanford women in science proves all it will take to close the gap is a change in mindset, not a hundred years.