Women have been involved in the world of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) since the very beginning. From En Hedu’Anna of Babylon, an astronomer who lived nearly 4400 years ago, to Patricia Bath, the 20th century inventor of the Laserphaco Probe which treats cataracts, the history of women in STEM stretches back to the oldest of civilizations. Women have been involved in charting planets, discovering the concepts of radiation, computer programming, and innovations in mathematics. In the modern time, however, the sciences and related fields have come to be dominated by men. It has even come to a point where these fields are perceived as a world primarily suited for men.
The disparity between participation by men and women in the sciences is alarming in its magnitude. According to the United States Department of Commerce, women make up 48 percent of the workforce in general, yet they account for less than a quarter of all employment in STEM-related jobs. A study by the Harvard Business Review shows that while over 40 percent of personnel in the STEM fields are women in the pre-30s age groups, more than half of all the women drop out before the age of retirement, with the biggest losses occurring around the age of 35. A study by the Association for Women in Science discovered barriers to entry for women, such as the fact that even women interviewers chose to hire men over women, by significant margins, even given identical qualifications. There are also barriers that appear even before the job interview process. For instance Physics Today discovered that barely over 20 percent of all physics degrees are earned by women.
There are many theories that exist as to why women pursue careers in STEM fields less often than men in the modern age. Certain theories suggest that the main problem is cultural. STEM-related fields are thought of by many as a type of work suited mainly for men. For instance many related jobs require long work hours, which are not considered to be suitable for most women, many of whom have responsibilities at home as well. Women teachers are also blamed for not helping female students enough in areas like mathematics. There is also the issue of the stereotypes about men who are tech enthusiasts, also known as geeks. Geeks are portrayed as being willing to sacrifice things that are typically important to women, such as personal hygiene, social interaction, exercise, and other social-related activities, in pursuit of knowledge. Moreover, a man’s poor social skills can be forgiven if he is exceptionally intelligent, but the same traits in a woman are not accepted by society. The problem gets worse when women do enter STEM-related fields, only to find that they are either the only woman in the workplace or classroom, or one of few. This leads to cultures of exclusion in which women are discriminated against, either overtly, subtlety, or even unintentionally, by their male peers.
The proposed solutions for the problem of under-representation by women in the STEM fields are as varied as the problems. Primarily, there are a variety of organizations that exist to help women who are interested in the sciences, as well as others that offer scholarships for women. Other approaches call for raising awareness in the workplace and in school to accommodate women students and workers, and initiatives to reduce working hours so that people can spend more time with their families. There are also outreach programs to educate companies on the benefits of family-friendly workplaces, which could help to cut down on the attrition rate of women in STEM-related industries. Others even advise women to avoid being segregated into women’s groups and try to integrate by emphasizing their love of tech rather than their uniqueness as a woman. Another proposed solution is to glamorize the participation of women in the sciences, and to educate the public about the long history of women’s contributions to these fields.
Women in STEM: Statistics
The Lack of Women’s Participation in STEM Fields
Getting More Women Involved in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics
Famous & Historical Women of Science
Organizations and Programs For Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics