Science, Women's History Month, and You: Part 2

This is part 2 of Science, Women's History Month, and You, the first post of which appeared on the Educator blog on March 20.

Earlier during this Women's History Month, the SNL Educator blog took a look at the unfortunate reality of girls' and women's underperformance in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Now it's time to examine the reasons why.

To reiterate an idea from the previous post, the fact that girls and women are lagging behind in STEM is not because they are innately worse at science and math. This misogynistic, widely held misconception only contributes to the problem. The truth behind this STEM gender gap is that there are barriers to girls' and women's success in these fields. Thanks to decades of research, some of these barriers have been identified, which is the first step to eliminating them.

Unfortunately, the problem can begin as early as preschool: research has shown that from pre-elementary to the university level, educators pay more attention to boys than to girls in the classroom. This includes teachers calling on boys more often, which can result in boys talking longer in class and dominating discussion. Correlating with this is how girls are more likely to be interrupted while speaking in class or qualify their answers with statements like "I guess that..." or "I may be wrong..." These behavioral patterns that bolster boys' classroom presence at the expense of girls' can occur in STEM and other subjects as well.

Specific to STEM, however, is a harmful paradigm called "stereotype threat," wherein people who are reminded of negative stereotypes about aspects of their identity are more likely to fall into those stereotypes. As this Science Update podcast explains, girls might fall behind in mathematics as early as elementary school due to their female teachers' own anxieties about the subject. In other words, the widespread stereotype that girls are worse at math could become a self-fulfilling prophecy when girls are reminded of it.

Finally, a recent groundbreaking study has shown how both women and men are more likely to doubt women's scientific abilities, regardless of their actual accomplishments. In this study, professional scientists—both male and female—were asked to evaluate and rate the resume of a person applying to a science research position. The scientists were given completely identical resumes to evaluate, except half had a female name attached and half had a male name attached. The results? The female applicants were given lower ratings than the male applicants across the board, including—perhaps most importantly—lower suggested starting salaries. These disturbing results show just how solidly the odds are stacked against women in the sciences.

What can be done about these barriers to girls' and women's success in STEM? A great number of things, according to a recent report called Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics by the American Association of University Women. The report suggests talking to girls from an early age about successful female role models in STEM and actively combating stereotypes about STEM ability, as well as asking educators to take steps such as recognizing and combating their own biases and creating mentoring programs specifically for female STEM students. Though the challenges are great, encouraging more people in the science and education communities to recognize and address these issues can only result in positive change for women and girls in STEM taking shape sooner.



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